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U2's risks reward faithful

The Baltimore Sun

No Line on the Horizon

U2 [Interscope Records] ** 1/2 (2 1/2 STARS)

Less than a minute into the first track on U2's new album, No Line on the Horizon, it's clear the Irish rockers are ready to take risks again. That much is refreshing.

For all of the copies sold and Grammys won, U2's last album, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, was a safe bet. The songs were focused and vaguely reminiscent of the group's early years, but few were very memorable.

Not so with No Line on the Horizon, which won't be released in stores in the U.S. until next Tuesday, but was available for listening this weekend on U2's MySpace page and on U2.com.

The band's 12th album tackles esoteric themes such as love and hope in 11 tracks. Two of the album's strongest songs, "No Line on the Horizon" and the modestly titled "Magnificent," come first. The title track opens with some subtle, wavering feedback, which gives way to a hypnotic beat. "You can hear the universe / in her seashells," Bono yells in the first verse. The song smolders for minutes before exploding into stadium-rocker territory.

"Magnificent" is a full-bore stomper, complete with The Edge's trademark echoing, atmospheric guitar riffs. Love him or hate him, Bono's from-the-gut wailing and seductive crooning are undeniable. Why wasn't this song the first single?

No Line on the Horizon comes nearly five years after How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and is one of the year's most anticipated releases. Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois helped with the songwriting, and producer/mixer Steve Lillywhite lent a hand on a couple of tracks. Though the album was recorded in several locations, including Morocco, New York and the band's hometown of Dublin and features a couple of different producers, it doesn't feel disjointed.

There are flashes of brilliance on No Line on the Horizon that bring to mind The Joshua Tree and other masterpieces from U2's prime. But as a whole, No Line on the Horizon isn't on par with U2's best work. Noticeably missing are the aching, alluring melodies that helped make U2 into one of the world's biggest rock acts.

The first single, "Get on Your Boots," which the band performed at this month's Grammys, is a great example. It opens with a sizzling guitar riff that's quickly spoiled by Bono's rapid-fire lyrics. The groove is there, but the melody doesn't stay with you. There are times when Bono overreaches and winds up sounding too gratuitous. In the context of the album, it's passable at best. But as a single, "Get on Your Boots" is forgettable.

The album cools down noticeably near the end. "Fez - Being Born" opens with a minute-long, trancelike dirge before jarringly switching gears and plunging into 0061 more upbeat jam. "White as Snow" and "Cedars of Lebanon" begin with hypnotic keyboards and give way to slow-paced, reflective verses. Some of the songs, such as "Moment of Surrender" and "Unknown Caller," stretch to six and seven minutes.

Bono can still turn a phrase. On the plodding "Moment of Surrender," he sings "I tied myself with wire / to let the horses roam free / playing with fire / until the fire played with me." But he has plenty of lines that make you scratch your head, too. "I've got a submarine / you've got gasoline," he sings on "Get on Your Boots." What?

No Line on the Horizon might not spawn as many hits or sell as many albums as U2's last album. But the band's willingness to experiment again is worth celebrating.

Download these:: "Magnificent," "No Line on the Horizon," "I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy"

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