Those of you who’ve been reading for a while know that I’ve often grappled with the issue of whether or not to download leaked records, a debate reignited with the news that U2’s new record, No Line on the Horizon, had hit the web overnight, two weeks before its official release date.
My reasons for not downloading leaks in the past were many. For one, I believe that artists have a right to determine when (and to a lesser extent, how) their music is released. Secondly, I’m still a big proponent of the physical artifact, and as such I tend to be willing to wait until I’m able to get the CD/vinyl in my hands. Mostly, though, it’s that I resent the element of our instant gratification culture that demands access to something as soon as possible, crippling the art of anticipation and also producing “first impressions” instead of the sober, contemplative thoughts that the pretentious wanker in me believes great records deserve.
As time goes by, though, I feel forced to rethink much of this. Some of my change-of-heart is selfish reasoning – Why should professional critics get to review a record before the rest of us? Why do bands continue to support the long gap between finishing and releasing a record? – but a lot of it stems from a desire to have a voice in the conversation. These days when an album reaches stores it feels like everyone’s already had their say on it, whether on blogs, message boards or media websites. When minds are made up and people are already into “live and let live” mode with their opinions, posting a “review” seems irrelevant (which is perhaps why I’ve been reviewing less and less records on the blog).
So while I may stick to my original guns for certain records or bands that mean a lot to me, I think it’s time to start experimenting a bit and see what happens. Which brings me to No Line on the Horizon.
My original take on U2’s discography over the past 20 years was that it was the sound of a band trying (and struggling) to figure out why Achtung Baby was such a miracuously brilliant record. With each subsequent release, they tried to focus on one of that landmark album’s core elements – the sonic playfulness of Zooropa, the Euro-electro of Pop, the balladry of All That You Can’t Leave Behind – but never finding them in the right balance. I was a big fan of How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb because it felt like those elements were finally back in sync with one another. The problem? They simply didn’t add up the way they used to, leaving the band with a highly enjoyable but ultimately redundant record.
Now that I’ve heard No Line on the Horizon, though, I’m going to rewrite that narrative into something different, and ultimately something much less flattering to the band. It’s becoming pretty apparent at this point that Bono and the boys are retracing their steps through their discography but doing so in an infinitely more boring way. All That You Can’t Leave Behind was a more boring version of The Joshua Tree, Atomic Bomb was a more boring version of Achtung Baby, and now No Line on the Horizon is a more boring version of Zooropa.
It’s a record that shares Zooropa’s faults – the languid pace, the lack of hooks on a number of tracks – with almost none of its playful charms. After starting out promisingly with the title track, the album delves into a three-song dirge of slow, meandering tracks that feel more like slogs than songs. I’m not one to demand that U2 always be rockers, blasting the Edge’s guitar to the back of the stadium, but my goodness – you can practically hear the life being sucked out the album at that point. It tries to gain some life back in its middle, which is where I expect most of its singles will be taken from, but it goes back to dirge mode at the end. When the album’s 53 minutes were up, I found myself struggling to remember a single hook (perhaps aside from the title track and the previously-released “Get On Your Boots,” which I’m still not totally sold on but at least feels like there’s something alive in it).
I’d forgive all this if the record had a vibe, a sound that I felt was compelling in itself. Ultimately, though, it just feels aimless, and not in the way that Zooropa did. That record lacked focus because it felt like the band was genuinely throwing stuff at the wall to see what stuck and what went straight on through. No Line sounds like the boys not only don’t know what they’re looking for, but they’re so caught up in “U2” as an entity at this point that they’re not willing to take the risks to find out. Without the hooks and without the guts to push themselves into some genuinely interesting sonic territory, they end up with something mostly just boring. A few loose riffs and a handful of sound effects, a great record is not.
…of course, having said all that, I now feel slightly guilty of tearing to shreds a record that I’ve only listenend to twice (start-to-finish both times, of course). I guess I’ve got a ways to go before I get comfortable with this “leaked albums” thing, don’t I?