U2 was formed in response to an ad placed on a high school notice board in 1976 by drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. At first, the group called themselves Feedback, then Hype and finally settled on the name U2, chosen, bassist Adam Clayton says, for its ambiguity. Two years later, they entered and won a talent competition sponsored by beer maker Guinness. By 1979, when they posed for the above photo, the group had already scored a hit in Ireland. They are, from left, Bono, The Edge, Clayton and Mullen
Shortly after the release of 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, I asked Bono about U2's place in contemporary music. "We're a wedding band now," he said decisively. Before I could inquire about availability and if the Edge knew the chord progressions on "Hava Nagila," he elaborated: "Our biggest accomplishment is that we've made a few songs people want to play during important moments in their lives. That's a very humbling thing ... If we're remembered as a great wedding band, I'll take it."
Dismiss it as a flourish of modesty or a side effect of middle age, but U2 has steadily softened its ambition during its 30-year existence, and that's not such a bad thing. Early on, Bono sang with a moral force that suggested Cotton Mather with a mullet; not satisfied to rock you on "Sunday Bloody Sunday," he needed to convert you. In the towering period that spanned The Joshua Tree to Zooropa, U2 made stadium-size art rock with huge melodies that allowed Bono to throw his arms around the world while bending its ear about social justice. After 1997's Pop — a disastrous mix of disco and hubris that provided a harrowing glimpse of career death — the band decided to banish the lead singer's politics to venues like the U.N. and focus on writing songs whose chief ambition was to charm rather than to persuade. This late-version U2 has produced a run of hits ("Beautiful Day," "Wild Honey," "City of Blinding Lights") united by a lightness of theme and an ease of sound. Unburdened by the need to make big statements, U2 proved that no one else is better at making universal small ones .
It's a fine place to close the curtain, with the band flourishing in its contented third act as the one group people of all ages can agree on. Except that U2 isn't quite content. After an almost five-year absence, during which Bono was named one of TIME's Persons of the Year for his work on global poverty and the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band returns on March 3 with an album called No Line on the Horizon. It offers up a few new hits for the wedding playlist, but No Line on the Horizon is mostly restless, tentative and confused. It's not terrible, but it feels like the work of musicians torn between the comfort of the present and the lure of one last run into the adventurous past.
No Line on the Horizon starts well. "I know a girl," Bono screams on the title track, thrusting us into the familiar cosmos of a U2 hit. There's the martial beat, the fickle female object of desire, the soaring inarticulateness — "Ohhhhhh/ Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh" — followed by the Edge chugga-chugga-chugging away on his guitar, chasing Bono up the scale note for note and yawp for yawp. It makes you giggle in amazement that the same old tricks keep generating new thrills.
Having set the bar high, U2 gradually limbos underneath it. The trouble begins with "Magnificent," another catchy, thunderous love song out of the recent U2 playbook. At least it seems that way until the arrival of the portentous line "I was born to sing for you/ I didn't have a choice but to lift you up/ And sing whatever song you wanted me to." Delivered with an ambivalent growl by one of the most famous men in the world — one who got that way by being a singer of songs and lifter of souls — it suddenly sounds less like a love song and more like a grievance. Each time Bono slips out of the Everyman first person ("I know a girl") and into the specific ("I was born to sing for you"), the effect is jarring enough to raise the question, Is he trying to speak for us or to us ?
On U2's best albums (The Joshua Tree; Achtung Baby), the answer is both. But convergence rarely happens here. Some songs — like "Stand Up Comedy," a goofball attempt at funk — are explicitly told through Bono's rose-colored specs. ("Stand up to rock stars, Napoleon is in high heels/ Josephine, be careful of small men with big ideas.") But on the otherwise breezy power pop of "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight," the rock star can't resist intruding with a lyric that first appeared as a pull quote in several of his magazine profiles ("The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear"). After a few albums of disciplined universality and lyrics everyone can relate to, the man has earned the right to sing his life, and plenty of people are interested in the thoughts of the philanthropic and famous. But the pleasures these moments provide are at best voyeuristic; they create distance between U2 and the average listener, while great pop — the kind this band used to produce consistently — strives to erase distance
To his credit, Bono never stops noodling with ways to make a connection. He slips into characters (a soldier in "White as Snow," a journalist in "Cedars of Lebanon"), scats like a young Beat poet and, in a moment he will probably regret, impersonates your office IT guy ("Restart and reboot yourself") on a ham-fisted attempt at life-coaching. Multiple times he asks, "Let me in the sound," as if looking for a place to hide.
But the sound doesn't provide much refuge. Work on No Line on the Horizon began in 2007, when the band decamped to Morocco with Brian Eno and Danny Lanois, the men who oversaw U2's 1980s transformation from anthem singers to makers of textured, daring rock. As a hedge, the band also paid visits to Dublin and London to check in with Steve Lillywhite, who helped U2 crank out some of its muscular early and recent hits. (Most bands would have to take out a second mortgage to cover the per diem for just one of these producers.)
Not surprisingly, the album lacks a unified feel. On a few tracks, the Edge, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton sound at home rumbling through the verses and blowing out the choruses in the old familiar way. But as No Line trudges on, it slumps under the weight of its own need to surprise. Eno invented the bleeps and whirs that are mixed into the background of so many rock albums, and used as seasoning, his effects still have the power to create mystery. (On the title track, it sounds as if Bono is duetting with a quasar — very cool.) The problem is that too often Eno's tricks are the steak. Melody — the most surprising effect of all — dodges in and out but rarely makes itself at home, and all we're left with is an increasingly dull series of tricks killing time where the tunes should be.
The one song that seems to work on all the levels U2 intended is "Moment of Surrender." Clocking in at more than seven minutes and moving with the deliberate shuffle of a man wandering empty streets, it gives Bono a shot to channel Sinatra at his loneliest. You can hear an organ and a cello and a lot of other sounds that are hard to pinpoint, but they gradually converge into a heartbreaking melody as Bono stares into the reflection of an ATM and discovers he can no longer recognize his own face. As the tune fades out, he lets loose another of his famous "Oh-oh-ohs," and it's hard not to hear an echo of his closing blast on "With or Without You" but in a minor key. U2 has clearly found itself stuck in a very strange moment of self-reckoning. And a great band's horizon has never looked so close.