Disc Reviews: U2 and Morrissey

On No Line on the Horizon, U2 may have finally found the balance between the old and new.

bono 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
bono 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
U2 No Line on the Horizon (Helicon) For the past 15 years or so, U2 has been trying to find a new equilibrium between its traditional old school-rock & roll salvation sound that made it the biggest and best rock band of its era, and the cynicism of the modern world. While initial efforts like 1993's Zooropa and 1997's Pop seemed like the band was throwing out the baby with the bathwater, in its efforts to forge a new identity, this decade has seen the Irish icons retreating to familiar sweeping anthems with the Edge's unmistakable bell-like guitar and Bono's crusading vocals dominating 2000's impressive All That You Can't Leave Behind and 2004's How to Build an Atomic Bomb. On No Line on the Horizon, U2 may have finally found the balance between the old and new. Without rehashing past glories, the band's 11th studio album sounds positively like U2, displaying an energy and sense of adventure that's been missing from its more recent returns to classic rock. With the usual suspects of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois helping to create a swirling soundscape, when it's on target, U2 is unmatched in popular music. Highlights like "Magnificent" and "Breathe" pump up the trademark Boy riffs from the band's youth into burning tempests. And with the majestic "Unknown Caller," the Edge reconfirms his place as the guitar god with inspired tastefulness. Bono restrains his preachy tendencies most of the time, and - an anathema for this most serious of bands - even pulls off a number of lines that could be considered humorous, like "The right to appear ridiculous is something I hold dear," on the playfully retro-rocking "I'll Go Crazy if I Don't Go Crazy Tonight." Even the two attempts where U2 veers overboard in attempting to sound "current" - the hipster hip-hop of "Get On Your Boots" and the stiff title song (albeit featuring a great psychedelic pop chorus) - display a loose band unafraid to take chances. A couple of offbeat tunes - the heartfelt techno ballad "Moment of Surrender" and an Unforgettable Fire-like pastiche "Fez - Being Born" - add to the show of versatility and set the table for the killer moments: the ethereal "White As Snow" and the sinewy, bluesy "Stand Up Comedy." Just when it seemed that a new rock generation would have to resign itself to an era of Coldplay and The Killers, U2 has returned to rightfully reclaim its birthright. MORRISSEY Years of Refusal (Helicon) I've been listening to Morrissey's Year of Refusal again and again, and I've been troubled by the fact that I can't remember how any of the songs go. On the surface, it's another appealing solo effort from the one-time leader of The Smiths, featuring his always insightful and articulate lyrics of fear, loathing and despair. But too many of the songs, recorded with his American touring band that performed with him in Tel Aviv last year, just don't pass muster, lacking the flair and individuality that a master vocalist like Morrissey requires. There are a few standout cuts where the music rises to the occasion and results in classic Morrissey - like "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris," "That's How People Grow Up," "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore" and "Sorry Doesn't Help." But elsewhere, the pedestrian melodies and arrangements - anonymous hard rock that while technically proficient, lacks any heart - only puts more of a glaring spotlight on the deficiencies in the bulk of the material. "When I Last Spoke to Carol" continues Morrissey's nod toward Spanish music, complete with a Herb Alpert-like trumpet solo, but diversions like that are far and few between. It almost seems like when they ran out of ideas, they just said "let's crank up the volume and maybe they won't notice." Compared to his 2004 comeback You Are the Quarry, Year of Refusal sounds like an afterthought.