I was searching for the perfect Jurassic Park pun with which to title this review of the dinosaurs of my youth howling effectlessly at modernity, but true thunder lizards like U2 and Morrissey defy mockery. They will do what they will do, and even when I think I don't care about them anymore, I will still somehow care a little. I expect I will forever at least feel the tremor of their leaden earth-shaking steps.That's how it is if you once walked among the dinosaurs.
No Line on the Horizon
There are exactly two genius moments on the new U2 album No Line on the Horizon, and they lay in wait at the end of the record for you to emerge dizzy from the relative wasteland of the nine tracks that precede it. One of these moments is the last on the album: "Cedars of Lebanon", a glowing combination of smart art textures likely from the mind of Brian Eno and the pedal board of The Edge. Even the fake tape hiss at the beginning, rising and falling like a barely perceivable pulse sounds inspired. Bono goes boho with his loose, believable spoken spiel about being a warzone journalist balancing the mundanity and insanity one witnesses in such a sensation.
Choose your enemies carefully;
for they will define you
Make them interesting, because in some way they mind you
This meditation on walking the high road in the shoes of those on the low road is preceded by the other genius moment, "Breathe." The band rocks in a greasier version of the power ballad mode it spends the whole front of the album with, and Bono is trading subterranean homesick blues with a grizzled version of his trademark croon, occasionally hitting a breathtaking note. The Edge chimes and arrpegiates like an echo bouncing off the wall of Red Rocks from 1983, but only for a moment. The Hindenburg of the U2 superego pitches dangerously toward the Jersey shore but at the last minute momentarily becomes a Led Zeppelin pulling out of the dive. It's worthy album-ender for a band that has been doing it their way for over two decades.
It is too bad you have to endure the trials of the beginning to get there. The title track seems to be an underbaked thesis fatally attempting to back up the ambiguity in the album's name. "Magnificent" is not; the growl of guitars against the new wave pitter-patter evokes images of middle managers going for a ride to TGIFriday's on newly purchased Harleys. As smart as Eno's touches (or maybe they are Daniel Lanois' handiwork) are on "Lebanon", they submerge tracks like" Moment of Surrender" and "FEZ-Being Born" making them into dated trip-hop pastiches. "Unknown Caller" is a pleasant enough exemplification of The Edge's contribution to the world of guitar, and the rocker "Get Your Boots On" is best described as Old Man Bono aping the last gasps of INXS.
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Years of Refusal
Morrissey is more than willing to wash that grey right out of his hair right there as you watch on Years of Refusal. His raved-up music meets his most exuberant delivery on record in years, practically blubbering Don't give me anymore! Don't give me anymore! after the litany of antidepressants on "Something is Squeezing My Skull." The song sounds a little to adrenalized for an elder statesman, but Morrissey is not now and has never been about being subdued. He is the subdue-er even when what he subdues is the awful embarrassing truth about the wretch he suspects he is, and that is why Morrissey still matters. I don't even know what is going on during "Mama, Lay Softly on the Riverbed" so awash is the song in sonic debris. "Black Cloud" however, is classic neutered braggadocio.
I play the game of
I can and must, I will and do
I can freeze you out
But there is nothing I can do to make you mine
The single "I'm Throwing My Arms Around Paris" is the glitz of his downer deal dressed up for Broadway, swooning strings compete with the flash of tambourine just and then subside for a pastoral moment, Morrissey swinging like a bellowing cupid on a zip line careening above this tableau. It's a rather wonderful thing, like cupcake into which someone you have loved forever put entirely too much work.
My favorite moment on the record is when the Tijuana Brass horns emerge in "When I Last Spoke to Carol" as if they had been hiding in that retro typeface on the cover. Perhaps it is a nod to his sizable Mexican fanbase. Perhaps the only way to conjure a shuffle this massive is to go Latin. Whatever the reason, it is fantastic. Showbiz excelsior caliente!
I think Morrissey is destined for old school pop singer stardom, the Tom Jones for the libidophobic children of the 80's trudging out to Vegas on weekend trips because they won tickets to his weekly theater show on the radio. And I offer this not because I think he is damned to a fate like that, as is Celine Dion or any magician, but because he is the only person who can embody this situation. He could have flower cannons posted at four equidistant points of his stage-in-the-round, pelting him like airplanes trying to gun King Kong off the Empire State building, and yet like the 100,000 pound gorilla, Morrissey will emerge unscathed and wipe the hearts of his audience clean with the cautionary love ballad "One Day Goodbye Will Be Farewell." The curtains would slam down sending a wild torrent of petals into the pumped-in casino theater oxygen and the crowd would ceaselessly clamor for an encore that he famously would not do. Instead, he would sulk off to his room in the adjacent hotel, put some imitation honey in his tea to sooth his weary vocal cords and stare out at the synthetic Nevada night.
If only the album ended like that scene. "Farewell" is an obvious and perfect ender, but he plows on with the overloaded ballad "It's Not Your Birthday Anymore" cursing the very sentimentality his songs so easily evoke. "You Were Good in Your Time" plays out exactly as you might expect from the title, except possibly sappier, "Sorry Doesn't Help" drags the joke on against its will, and "I'm OK By Myself" flails and rages with all the dignity he can muster. And maybe he is OK by himself; he has been for two decades now. He manages to continue being a class act and an interesting anti-celebrity defiant against the times as much as he ever has been.
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Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com