First, my biases:
I was a big U2 fan up through The Unforgettable Fire -- really, as big a fan as you could be. I didn't like their "Irish Cowboy" phase (The Joshua Tree to Rattle and Hum). I started paying attention again during the Zoo years. Achtung Baby was a better concept than an album, but it got them back on track. My favorite U2 album is Zooropa. I like some the Passengers album and some of Pop, probably more than most people. The last two albums were good if a bit safe.
No Line On The Horizon is being pushed as a more experimental album. I say, bring it on.
U2's biggest challenge has always been that they have no groove. In the second half of their career, they've usually approached this problem by dressing up the production on their records rather than revamping their songwriting. On the last two albums, they tried to pass themselves off as a blue-eyed soul group on a couple of songs, and it mostly worked. But most of the other tracks never really got off the ground, at least not until they played them live a couple of dozen times.
The new single, Get On Your Boots, starts off like Vertigo, Jr. and is full of promise, like they're going to keep pushing their boundaries. But it bogs down in the bridge part and veers off into weirdness for the sake of weirdness.
Get On Your Boots sits right in the middle of the album. The album actually opens and closes with two different versions of the title track. So far, I can't tell them apart, but I like the gimmick. It's a good song too, a simple riff and rhythm that they've revisited several times since at least Achtung Baby. The chorus and middle section seem a bit like an attempt to sound like Talking Heads circa Remain In Light -- another trick U2 has tried several times over the years. It is not the last attempt on this album, either.
One thing about U2 the last few years is they haven't been shy about trying to correct their mistakes, or at least improve their near-misses. For example, Vertigo was basically an improvement on Elevation, which itself was maybe an attempt to salvage Last Night On Earth. On the last album, City Of Blinding Lights swung for the fences, trying to be a big classic arena rock anthem, and came up empty. Here, they to back to the well for Magnificent, and it works a lot better. You'll be raising your cell phone high above your head to this one in a stadium near you later this year.
In the same way, Moment Of Surrender is another stab at the duo of Stuck In A Moment and Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own. I think they got it right last time, but this is pretty good too, with a little bit of a reggae lilt.
Unknown Caller is their most explicit
OK, seeing a song title like I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight raises all kinds of warning flags. Then there's the lyrics. On the last album, there was one line that was so bizarre that it overwhelmed everything around it: "Freedom has a scent, like the top of a newborn baby's head." In this song, Bono sings, "Every beauty needs to go out with an idiot." Plus, the bass rips off the 20-year-old Jesus Jones hit Right Here, Right Now. Hmmm.
Stand Up Comedy also recycles an old riff from somewhere (maybe Neil Young), and features the line, "Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady."
In fact, this album continues and magnifies the trend that Bono has taken with his lyrics and delivery over the last decade, perhaps first demonstrated on the song New York on All That You Can't Leave Behind. It's a sort of casual, playful, irreverent Beat poet for the 21st century, (too) obviously influenced by rap. When it works, it's an inventive end run around the dead end that faces any rock band in its Xth year. When it doesn't, it produces an entertaining car crash.
Fez: Being Born is more Remain In Light, with the hip-hop trick of throwing in elements from other songs on the album. And here's an interesting thing: Is this album really all that experimental? No, not really. Most of it is pretty conventional, with fairly tame production. The obvious exceptions are this song and Get On Your Boots. This album also marks the return of the Eno-Lanois production team as full partners. Their first collaboration with U2, 25 years ago, was on The Unforgettable Fire, which was also billed as U2's (first) experimental album. Listening to it over the years, it's become obvious that it was pretty straightforward, except for one or two novelty tracks that tilted the whole thing ever-so-slightly toward the avant-garde. Same thing here -- none of which is meant to diminish the finished product, but merely to judge it against its own stated ambitions.
White As Snow, much like a bunch of tracks late in the running order of the last two albums (Peace On Earth, Grace, One Step Closer) is simple, slow and direct. Under the right circumstances, it could be a fan favorite, but it'll probably be overlooked. The granddaddy of this type of U2 song is The First Time, from Zooropa.
Breathe is the tough kid that hangs around with Get On Your Boots, the muscle next to the flash and trash leader of the gang. This one works, and contains perhaps the best example yet of Bono's recent lyrical and vocal style.
Cedars Of Lebanon is back to the vibe of White As Snow, with a more direct and specific lyric about the Middle East. Not too sure about this one. More Remain In Light, together with a vaguely Asian feel that most people will assume is Eno's influence.
One thing I liked about the last two albums was how Bono made a virtue of the limitations of his voice, pushing up against his range on pseudo-soul numbers like In A Little While and Original Of The Species. He seems to have given up on that here, opting instead for a unique mix of Dylan's talking blues and Sinatra's weary lounge act. At least he's not repeating himself.
Overall, I like this album. It's ambitious, a lot less experimental than advertised, with a few major potholes and three or four tracks that will eventually rise above the rest as they become more familiar. The biggest surprise is the almost total absence of anything that has the Edge's fingerprints on it. For better or worse, this is Bono's album.