Nonsense on the horizon

March 19, 2009

Pop star Bono is totally out of touch--and U2's latest album shows it.

CAN A rock band save the world? Considering the massive hype surrounding No Line on the Horizon, the answer would appear to be an emphatic "yes."

Since its release late last month, U2's most recent effort has been promoted to no end, and has already become the highest-selling album of 2009. Likewise, most reviewers stubbornly refuse to disappoint, with most mainstream newspapers giving Horizon reviews that positively glow with adulation for the biggest rock band in the world.

These reviews, however, don't seem to be directed at the music as much as they are at Bono--pop music's great crusader. It's a clever sleight of rhetoric--especially when one considers that Horizon is easily U2's weakest album to date. In the group's 25-year history, they have never released an album so confused, so sloppy or so lacking in artistic or moral center. If these songs are any kind of indicator, then we had better hope and pray that our salvation doesn't rest in the outstretched hands of Bono, Inc.

Against the backdrop of a rapidly shifting music scene and a world spinning into chaos, U2 promised that No Line on the Horizon would be an "experimental" album. For a band that has consistently defied expectation, that has spent its entire career veering between outlandish deconstruction and glorious returns to form, such a prospect was enticing. Knowing that a production team of Rick Rubin, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois would be at the helm only further sweetened the deal.

Bono performing with U2 in Boston
Bono performing with U2 in Boston (Phil Romans)

It starts off promising enough. The opening title track is a buzzy, techno-tripped missive that stretches for the anthemic heights of The Unforgettable Fire, but it's here that all momentum is lost. What could be a launch pad into an exhilarating collection of songs turns out to be the high point.

Halfway through "Magnificent," a couple of questions arise: If No Line on the Horizon is supposed to be "experimental," why does it sound like the same old U2? What's worse, why does it sound like a U2 who have been watered down to their lowest possible common denominator? It's here that The Edge's scratchy, hypnotic guitar work becomes tedious, the drums and bass of Clayton and Mullen fade into disuse, and Bono's broad wail becomes its most pompous and indulgent yet.

During the drawn-out pseudo-ambience of "Unknown Caller," one wonders if they're even trying anymore. By the time it gets to the insulting and hackneyed lead single "Get On Your Boots," that question is answered: they aren't. The song sees Bono recounting his trip to a French amusement park with his family right before the invasion of Iraq. What could be a fascinating juxtaposition of privilege and violence becomes little more than an homage to the former, as the singer sidetracks us to talk about the virtues of high fashion. He declares, "I don't want to talk about war between the nations."

What! Is he serious? What about all the pious cries for "world peace?" And the countless meetings with world leaders and diplomats? Bono may have painted an image as a man of peace, but when push comes to shove, this track shows him to be little more than a modern-day Nero, twiddling his thumbs as entire civilizations burn.

Even "White as Snow," a song about the last minutes of life for a soldier in Afghanistan, comes across clichéd and empty, and the minimal instrumentation that should tug at the heartstrings just doesn't have the strength.

IF U2 sounds like they're making music in a bubble, that's probably because they are. Though their sound may have been groundbreaking 30 years ago, the near-unprecedented amount of power and influence they have gained in the music world has necessarily relegated them to the ivory tower. That Interscope has put so much time and money into promoting an album as hollow and uninspiring as Horizon is symptomatic of an industry in crisis.

Perhaps the most instructive moment on Horizon comes during "Stand Up Comedy," where Bono warns listeners to "stand up to rock careful of small men with big ideas."

Judging from his own behavior, it seems safe to say Bono doesn't include himself in that category. From the Band Aid concerts in the 1980s to the much-lauded Product Red campaign, Bono has spent the past 20 years making poverty and disease in Africa his own personal cause.

Though few can deny the glaring inequality that exists on the world's most resource-rich continent, the effectiveness of Bono's campaigns is dictated by the billionaires, politicians and financiers that he has enlisted in his cause.

Microsoft svengali Bill Gates, New Labour architect and ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair, Apple founder Steve Jobs, presidential economic advisor Larry Summers, former President-select George W. Bush and even the thankfully departed bigot Sen. Jesse Helms are all just a sampling of the rich and powerful names Bono has hobnobbed with in the name of "humanitarianism."

The logic is straight out of Rudyard Kipling: that the best people to help the poor are an elite few--the ones who drove them into poverty in the first place.

Needless to say, Bono's campaign isn't designed to confront these people, but to preserve their place in society while throwing a few crumbs to poverty relief and AIDS research. Though Product Red claims that "up to half" of the income generated from products bearing the Red logo will go to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the actual figure has been revealed to be less than 10 percent (all of which can be recouped by the companies in the form of tax write-offs).

There is also speculation as to how much of that meager amount ends up in the pockets of big pharmaceutical companies unwilling to give their drugs away for free. Bono has little to say regarding the recent sweatshop revelations that have fallen on Converse, Gap or Apple--all participants in Product Red.

Sweatshops aren't the only scourge Bono is willing to tolerate. In 2002, well before the Red campaign was formed, the front man met with then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice to get her to "see the link" between poverty relief in Africa and the administration's "war on terror." The long history of U.S. support for corrupt African dictators and strongmen didn't make it into the conversation. Neither did the plans to turn Iraq and Afghanistan into neoliberal chemistry sets.

Bono's alliance with some of the most unsavory forces in the world isn't simply a necessary evil. There are myriad other actions U2 could take to fight global poverty. They could play benefits for the World Social Forum, donate money to independent trade unions and activist groups in Africa or speak out against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. But that would contradict the same free market that Bono relies on to support his campaigns.

Indeed, Bono has gone out of his way to make peace with neoliberalism, going so far as to turn up at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, to publicly rail against his critics (that many of these critics also happened to be Africans didn't seem to phase him) and also get in a few potshots against Radiohead for releasing their most recent album online as a "pay what you can" scheme.

The failure of No Line on the Horizon can't be separated from U2's complete disconnect from the real world. As Rock & Rap Confidential's Dave Marsh put it, "Bono also carries into each project his off-stage political pronouncements, and his fawning affiliations with war criminals such as Tony Blair and George W. Bush."

MARSH ISN'T the only one who has a problem with the company Bono keeps. Recently, Bono's provoked criticism from within his own band. In a December 2008 interview, U2 bandmate Larry Mullen stated that the company Bono keeps makes the drummer "cringe":

Tony Blair is a war criminal and should be tried as a war criminal. Then I see Bono and him as pals and I'm going "I don't like that." Do I think George Bush is a war criminal? Probably--but the difference between him and Tony Blair is that Blair is intelligent, so he has no excuse.

The day before the release of No Line on the Horizon, demonstrators rallied outside the Irish Department of Finance, bringing attention to the band's less-than-admirable financial practices

Nessa Ni Chasaide, who attended as director of the Debt and Development Coalition, explained, "We wanted to raise our concern that while Bono has championed the cause of fighting poverty and injustice in the impoverished world, the fact is that his band has moved part of its business to a tax shelter in the Netherlands." Chasaide pointed out that tax evasion costs poor nations about $160 million every year.

With the Celtic Tiger economy in shambles, and the unemployment rate growing by 1 percent every month, the richest band in the history of Ireland have opted out of paying a large amount of taxes that actually could be used to help working people.

Though he has presented himself as part of the solution, more and more ordinary people are starting to see Bono as part of the problem. Irish writer Eamonn McCann recalls in a recent article a young man at an anti-government protest in Dublin who carried a sign reading "Make Bono Pay Taxes."

No Line on the Horizon merely underline how intensely out of synch U2 have become with the needs of their own fans. In a time of global recession, when people are losing their jobs and homes, few want to hear a pampered pop star talk about his "sexy boots." Even fewer want a tax evader telling them that they are the ones who need to pony up to solve poverty.

There is a lot of better music out there--music that dodges condescending notions of charity and takes up the mantle of concrete solidarity. Right now, that's what the people of this planet need.

Special thanks to Shaun Harkin, Eamonn McCann and the folks at Rock & Rap Confidential for providing some of the key source materials. Alexander Billet's music blog is Rebel Frequencies.

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