‘No Line On The Horizon’: U2’s New Vision Of Creative Renewal

To start their 12th album, U2 were joined in Fez, Morocco by their longtime production confidants Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, now also as co-writers.

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U2 'No Line On The Horizon' artwork - Courtesy: UMG
U2 'No Line On The Horizon' artwork - Courtesy: UMG

A gap of nearly four and a half years between studio albums only sharpened the appetite of U2’s ravenous fans all over the world in 2009. When the band returned with No Line On The Horizon, the reaction prompted five million sales in as many months and led to the band breaking the record for the highest-grossing tour in music history. The masters of creative renewal had done it again.

During 2005, the year after How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb, the Vertigo tour saw U2 play to 3.2 million people. It was a staggering total, but their next tour would make mincemeat of it. Furthermore, in the summer of that year, they opened an event that was beamed live from London’s Hyde Park to half the population of the planet. Thirty years after starring at the original Wembley Stadium spectacular, the band declared Live8 well and truly open by performing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with Paul McCartney.

In 2006, there was new multi-platinum glory with the compilation U218 Singles, which sold a cool two million through Europe alone and gave a new generation the chance to catch up on 18 of the quartet’s most indelible moments. Included in that collection were two new songs they’d recorded during a month at Abbey Road that year.

While U2 have always entertained themselves, and their audience, with surprising cover versions in their live shows, a remake on disc is a rarity. But now they revived “The Saints Are Coming,” the 1979 track by Scottish new wave heroes the Skids, in collaboration with Green Day. Always first in line to front a good cause, proceeds went to Music Rising, the charity founded by The Edge to help get the musical heart of New Orleans beating again, after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.

The other new track was an original composition, “Window In The Skies,” for which the striking video included icons from Louis Armstrong and David Bowie to Keith Richards and Jimi Hendrix apparently singing and playing along.

U2 - Window In The Skies

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By 2007, U2 were recording again, for what would be their 12th studio release. The first location was both different and exotic, as they were joined in Fez, Morocco by their production confidants since the 1980s, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, now also as co-writers. Seven of the album’s 11 tracks would be jointly credited to all of them, as the North African flavours enriched the melting pot with a new experimentalism.

Hanover Quay, Platinum Sound and Olympic

Work continued at several studio addresses around the world, next at the band’s own Hanover Quay studio in Dublin, then at Platinum Sound in New York. Going the extra mile beyond their intended release date, they moved one more time to Olympic Studios, the famed south-west London spot that had hosted Hendrix, the Stones, The Beatles, and so many more.

Here, with another trusted ally, Steve Lillywhite, adding further production, the final touches to the album were added in December 2008. The satisfaction at completing the extended recording project was offset by the sad news of the death of Rob Partridge, one of the band’s earliest allies at Island Records in the late 1970s. No Line On The Horizon was fittingly dedicated to him. Another of U2’s brothers in arms, photographer and filmmaker Anton Corbijn, literally added another dimension to the experience by making the hour-long picture Linear, which accompanied various formats of the release.

In February 2009, in the weeks leading to the album’s appearance, U2 unveiled “Get On Your Boots” in awards season. They performed it at that month’s Grammys, BRITS and Arias. They had an even more dramatic set-piece up their sleeve, with a traffic-stopping, headline-starting mini-gig on the roof of the BBC’s Broadcasting House in London. Then, another first, with a week-long residency on the American TV staple Late Night With David Letterman.

U2 - Get On Your Boots (Live from Somerville Theatre, Boston 2009)

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The net result was the band’s seventh No.1 album in the US, and their tenth in the UK, pulling level with Madonna and the Rolling Stones. Only Elvis and The Beatles had had more. Three Grammy nominations ensued, and Rolling Stone magazine made No Line their album of 2009, further naming it the band’s best work since Achtung Baby.

No Line On The Horizon was a work of measured maturity, infinitely able to create rousing rock on their own grand scale, as with “Magnificent,” “Get On Your Boots,” and “Breathe.” But, at the other end of the scale, pieces like “Moment Of Surrender” and “White As Snow” were thoughtful reflections steeped in 30 years of writing and recording experience.

U2 - Magnificent

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Soon after the album’s release, Bono told the Guardian newspaper about a lyric in the “Cedars of Lebanon” track. “Choose your enemies carefully, ‘cos they will define you,” observed the song. “As an insight into our band, it’s the most important line,” he said. “It explains pretty much everything. U2 chose more interesting targets than other bands. Your own hypocrisies. Your addictions, but not to the obvious. Your ego. I think we made our enemies very interesting.”

The four-legged spaceship

June 30, 2009 heralded the opening of another gravity-defying live spectacle. The U2 360° Tour was aptly named, because this was by far the band’s most immersive concert experience yet. The awe-inspiring and revolutionary circular stage featured cylindrical, expanding LED screens on a towering, four-legged structure straight from the pages of a vintage sci-fi comic. The Claw was the most common nickname; others dubbed it the Spaceship or the Space Station, and it allowed fans to get closer to the band than ever before.

Listen to the best of U2 on Apple Music and Spotify.

One hundred and ten shows, including a Friday night headline slot at Glastonbury Festival, stretched over five continents in 30 countries. Audiences totalled an eye-popping 7.1 million. “This tour is a remarkable feat on a global scale,” said Billboard, “from its staging and production, to its video elements, all the way to the scaling of the house, routing and execution. Most importantly, U2 rocked mightily all over the world.”

‘It demands ego’

Therein lay the secret they have owned for so many years: to have the sheer guts and bravura to become, and remain, the very best at their job. Of course, it involves ego; in fact, it demands it, as Bono said with great exuberance in that interview with the Guardian.

See the stories behind each of the U2 studio albums revealed in sequence at the band’s Essentials Page.

“The need to be loved and admired doesn’t come from a particularly pretty place,” he mused. “But people tend to do a lot of great things with it. Ego, yes, but the ego that’s in everything human beings are capable of. Without ego, things would be so dull.”

Buy or stream the tenth anniversary editions of No Line On The Horizon.

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