No Line on the Horizon (NLOTH) dropped back in 2009, which means we’re coming up on ten years. It’s time to revisit this often stunning work in the nine-year anniversary celebration no one asked for!
Initially, the idea was to do this esoteric thing and have a few hits there as well. It’s kind of morphed into something else. I think there is experimentation in there… it’s just a different animal. This has got a lot of weight…
— Larry on recording in Morocco (from U2.com)
Imagine a city as it looked centuries ago in the Middle East or northern Africa, before electricity and the industrial revolution, before the age where we communicate without seeing each other, often without hearing each other. The loudest sounds of the city may have been that of people talking. There may have been a mingling of religions in this city, temples and churches and mosques.
Now imagine a man steps onto the wall atop a house of worship. His voice rings out across the city, calling the people to prayers. Only instead of one man, imagine it’s four men and they’re a rock band.
NLOTH is, at its core, a spiritual album. The band at one point called it “future prayers.” It’s a journey of both sound and spirit.
U2 is always looking for a new sound, but what makes this album unique is how the music and vocals work together. These songs aren’t pop-rock tunes ready for the radio. The most original songs are soundscapes developed both by the band and producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. The band uses these soundscapes to give weight to the vocals. Bono and company often sing at the top of their lungs, but this is more primal, less perfected. When they cry out in a wordless emote, it’s a kind of wailing, like they’re lifting their voices up to be heard by whatever higher power might be listening. On the best songs, they make it feel spontaneous and inspired.
It feels like the band was freed to sing whatever they wanted, without the trappings of reaching for the Billboard Top 100. I’m guessing Eno and Lanois had a big influence on this freedom. Additionally, their stay in Morocco, where they recorded several songs in an open-air riad, clearly opened their minds.
Start with Fez-Being Born. That song is a primer. It’s about a journey, and it sets you up for the journey you are going to take. When the band sings “Let me in the sound” in Get on Your Boots, they appear to have found it in Fez-Being Born.
I want people to listen to it as opposed to just buying it. I want this to be an album people go back to, and really get into, in-depth
— Edge (U2.com)
This is an album that rewards you for listening through it multiple times. NLOTH demands not just attention, but participation. It asks you to look deeper to really understand the lyrics. There are moments of joyous uplift and aching stories of broken souls, all of which reveal deeper levels the further you delve into each song.
For an album of future prayers, there is a lot of hard rock here. They counter that with two songs of quite introspection, White as Snow and, one of my favorites, Cedars of Lebanon. They also strip down some of the production on I’ll go crazy of I don’t go Crazy Tonight and Breathe, while still keeping with the theme of the album.
It’s not all perfect though. There are two strange choices:
Unknown Caller – it’s an interesting song that follows their theme, but I think it’s an odd experiment that’s overworked. I like the idea and I understand why they added it, but it feels like it belongs on a “Deluxe Edition.”
Stand Up Comedy – this cool song feels like a holdover from How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb. Nothing here belongs in the same space as NLOTH. The sound doesn’t gel with the other songs and the lyrics are off-theme.
These songs interrupt the journey. It sounds harsh to say that two songs can make such a dent, but in the case of NLOTH, the sound the band cultivated with Eno and Lanois, and the spiritual themes they sing about, are so singular that you quickly notice when they move away from it. They already step outside the overall sound with I’ll Go Crazy and Breathe. The album is calling out for a third quiet song to go along with White as Snow and Cedars of Lebanon. Which brings us to:
Every Breaking Wave
This song was developed during the NLOTH sessions. I think it shows, even with the final version on Songs of Innocence (SOI). They didn’t think it was a finished song at the time. However, you can find an early working version online that they sang on their 360 tour. The early version would not have worked on SOI, but in terms of NLOTH, I think it would have anchored the album because it would have formed a trio with the two songs mentioned above and counterpoint the hard rock. The lyrics are raw and aching, a devastated soul calling out for help. The guitar underscores it beautifully, while the falsetto emote at the end is crushing and delivers everything NLOTH purports to be. Sometimes, when you look too hard for your version of perfection, you miss out on how things are. The imperfections of the early version are what makes this song perfect. It’s raw and personal and messy and everything prayer really is.
Nevertheless, the best songs on the album are breathtaking works that fewer and fewer rock bands seem to be hitting these days (even U2). It shows the heights you can reach when you’re not too busy reaching for the charts.
I firmly believe that NLOTH was meant to be an experience that you start and listen to all the way through. I find it fascinating and, more importantly, worthy of my time. Even without any changes, it’s one of U2’s best.
Do you think you’re smarter than one of the most successful rock bands of all time? I know I do! In today’s world of streaming playlists, you can remix this into a “Deluxe Edition.” For my money, I made only two changes, which help unify the album (for me).
- Unknown Caller moves to a faux Deluxe Edition and is replaced with the acoustic version of Every Breaking Wave. The acoustic version, while lacking the soundscape of No Line, is truer to the original intention of the song and gives me that slow burner I was looking for.
- Stand Up Comedy also goes to the deluxe side. The band originally wrote Breathe about Nelson Mandela, before changing it for the album. So I grabbed the original version of Ordinary Love. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s not bad either.
For me, these changes provide a more cohesive journey.