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CD Review

U2 looks in, branches out

U2 (Anton Corbijn) The Irish rockers — (from left) Adam Clayton, the Edge, Bono, and Larry Mullen Jr. — release their 12th album Tuesday.
By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / March 3, 2009

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"No Line on the Horizon" is one of those titles that can be interpreted several ways.

Like the cover image of U2's 12th album - a Hiroshi Sugimoto photo - the idea could mean limitless possibilities ahead. Or, with no place to make safe landfall in sight, it could represent a fear of uncharted territory. (Can you relate, y'all?) The black-and-white photo captures gray skies and placid waters; who knows what lurks beneath. Favorable currents? Stagnancy? Sea monsters?

That multiplicity suits the many moods of the Irish rockers' latest, out today. It seems the quartet worked out the "return to form" stuff with their last two enjoyable but less artful records. Now they've gotten down to the business of exploring the world within and without in a way that speaks to their own muses - as opposed to the demands of their robust fan base.

But this is still U2 we're talking about, with help from producers Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, and Steve Lillywhite. So, as Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. skip from brooding to ecstatic to analytical and embrace new practices - and even some humor - the overall effect remains a familiar one: uplift. But, perhaps befitting the muted, white-knuckle fears of the moment, that sense of ascension doesn't always arrive in the usual "greatest band in the land" manner of surging choruses and triumphant reverb. Deeply personal lyrics, sonic experimentations, some of Bono's most emotional vocalizing, and, OK, a few surging choruses and triumphant reverb all play a part.

By unshackling its adventurous side, the band helps "Line" soar gracefully, at least in part.

Particularly moving are Bono's dry, unadorned vocals on "White as Snow" as he sings of hard lessons learned that could easily apply to love, faith, or country, with doleful horns and sparkling piano underscoring his musings. "Cedars of Lebanon" expands out to the larger canvas of a war correspondent but feels like intimate eavesdropping as Bono sings of pangs of homesickness and dislocation. The songs work not because of tunefulness or familiar U2 signposts but because they feel so honest.

The hip-moving side of things arrives with the muscular roll and tumble of the Edge's Zep-inspired riffs on "Stand Up Comedy," Bono's skyscraping proclamations of his pied piper birthright on the pleasantly retro "Magnificent," and the majestic organ bray of "Unknown Caller."

Other excursions don't fare as well, such as the strange mishmash of hipster patter, lurching beats, and crashing guitars creakily hitched to an arena rock framework on "Breathe." And Bono still gets annoying-goofy as opposed to fun-goofy in places: "You can hear the universe in her sea shells" he warbles on the title track. But what flops here tends to be more interesting than previous failures on the band's more calculated efforts. Even when the album threatens to float away, Bono's endearing vulnerability keeps the songs anchored.

Whether the horizon holds hope or threat, or more likely a mixture of both, it's a comfort to know that U2 is still looking forward.

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