"Time is irrelevant, it's not linear," Bono proclaims near the beginning of No Line on the Horizon (4 stars), U2's 12th studio album, which releases March 3 but is already posted on the band's MySpace page. When you've spent 30 years in the circus, are well into middle age, and are still working the territory most commonly associated with preening 20-year-olds, it's a reasonable stance to take. Fittingly, it's a preoccupation Bono circles back to again and again, and it results in the band's most thematically rich album in a storied career.
First, the bad news. Produced by the now-familiar triumvirate of Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, and Steve Lillywhite, and recorded in studios around the world (Dublin, London, New York, and Fez, Morocco), Horizon occasionally suffers from sonic jetlag. It gives the impression that it has been painstakingly pieced together rather than allowed to flow organically. Not so much played as sculpted, the 11 songs exhibit the slick, professional sheen that sometimes inhibits a band once known for its raw punk energy.
But it's a quibble. No Line on the Horizon is not the band's best album, nor is it the radical reinvention that Bono announced in countless pre-release interviews. It's nothing more and nothing less than quintessential U2, full of the searing, echo-drenched guitar riffs and rousing sing-along choruses that have always marked the band's best work. And as a compendium of the sounds that have defined U2, it's an encyclopedia three decades in the making.
The first four tracks throw down the gauntlet. On the opening title track, Bono offers a typical open-ended assessment of commitment, both marital and spiritual, that works ...1