There is a song called “Magnificent” on No Line on the Horizon, the first U2 record since 2004’s alleged “return to form” (but in reality just boring and unambitious) How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. It features refrains of “Magnificent, Magnificent!” and “Only love can leave such a mark / Only love can leave such a scar,” which would be forgivable, or nice even, if Bono were talking about, let’s say, the indelible mark his wife has left on him over the years, the lyrical acknowledgement of the scary and exciting notion that one could have his or her life turned on its head by another human being. But no, not exactly.
This is Bono we’re talking about, remember, and so it should probably come as little surprise that it appears he’s talking about himself and the impact he’s had on the rest of the world. “I was born to sing for you,” he informs us. “I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up.” Well, shucks… thanks, Bono! Only, here’s the thing: musically, which is to say nothing of his heavy-handed but obviously admirable humanitarian efforts, he acts almost exclusively in poor taste these days, and he’s therefore incapable of having any effect on me whatsoever, other than making me wonder if maybe I was wrong to defend him for all those years and if maybe he was always this much of a douche.
Obviously, yes, he was always this much of a douche. His god complex is well documented at this point, and everyone knows he’s long been of the opinion that every word that comes out of his mouth has the potential to change the world. It’s why we fell in love with him almost thirty years ago, and it’s why we’re still talking about him now. You don’t get to be the singer in the Biggest Rock Band in the World by being humble, after all. Once the songs are no longer good enough to back up your claims, though, it sure does it get ugly.
No Line on the Horizon is the most thoroughly unimpressive work U2 have done in their entire career, to the extent that “Magnificent” actually winds up being one of the record’s least offensive moments, if only because of the serious conviction with which Bono tells us how awesome he is. Despite their constant swinging for the fences with elaborate arrangements and unusual song structures, for much of the rest of the record, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr. and The Edge sound downright exhausted, as if they have a hunch they’re missing the mark, quietly longing for the small-ball days of Atomic Bomb, which, in retrospect, is the kind of material they’re most cut out for at this point in their career — as opposed to songs like “Get On Your Boots” or “Stand Up Comedy,” on which Bono tries his hand at something that I guess resembles rapping. Or songs like “Breathe,” with the cringe-inducing, Dylan-esque delivery of its verses, or even “Moment of Surrender,” a track featuring the kind of gospel vibe that actually used to work brilliantly for them. If you’re looking for highlights, there aren’t many, but in a pinch, you could cite “I’ll Go Crazy If I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight” or album-closer “Cedars of Lebanon,” which, fittingly, is more about production team Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite than the band.
It’s not at all crazy to believe Bono when he tells us he thinks he was born for the sole purpose of singing for us, of lifting people up. What’s crazy is that he still thinks he’s fulfilling his duties rather than gliding by on past achievements. And what’s even crazier is that people are letting him get away with it.