"the worst of us are a long, drawn-out confession; the best of us are geniuses of compression…"

Words from U2’s latest album No Line On The Horizon, released this week; a quiet, hypnotic set that yet thrums with the hidden but sensed force and latent danger of distant power lines. Occasionally thunder breaks and a storm races through, but the insistently meditative rhythms soon resume to carry us to the album’s Sopranos-like sudden conclusion. In the lines quoted above, Bono is writing in the character of a war correspondent, but those words could apply to all writing, that character could be any writer: “I’m here because I don’t want to go home,” he sings at one point. Writers take the long journey away from themselves, like actors, even as what they write or perform reinforces who they are; who we are. Throughout the album, Bono, perhaps the only rock star to truly channel the kinetic, elusive spirit of the Beats, attains sharp, brutal poetic heights: he has never been such a genius of compression as he is in these songs. “I’m running down the road like loose electricity,” like Kerouac in his original scroll for On The Road, full of restless, shifting energy, the need to escape, to move, to be alive. U2 channel the Beats, the rawness of punk, the immediacy of Japanese poetry, and even Ezra Pound, for they always follow his command to “make it new.” Take everything you know and remake it. That’s what Shakespeare did by turning established stories into new plays; that’s what Baz Luhrmann did when he adapted Romeo & Juliet into an utterly contemporary, furiously edited masterpiece of kinesis. That’s what U2 always do, to varying degrees. Achtung Baby was likely the biggest leap they have ever taken, from the traditional sincerity of The Joshua Tree to the new, heavily disguised, digitized, synthesized sincerity of Zoo Station and The Fly. The Zoo TV live show, while on the hand being utterly of the moment and groundbreaking and new, still carried echoes of Ezra Pound’s Blast magazine, published in 1916, with its one-word-per-page slogans, its cutting up and fragmenting of the cultural norms of the time, its exploding of conventions. The form was deconstructed and technologically rebuilt; this is what U2 have been doing ever since The Fly‘s distorted sonic reinventions. By the time of their Pop album, Bono was openly referencing William Burrough’s philosophy of cutting up the past and re-forming it. True invention and innovation demands the highest level of sincerity and dedication, to the soul of the piece, to the craft of realizing it. No Line On The Horizon is a beautiful, almost silent meditation on a long journey with no end in sight; it’s also sonically, musically and lyrically inventive. Unlike Achtung Baby, that invention is here absorbed by a minimalist soundscape. It takes many listens; all of U2’s layers are compressed into a smoothly digital rendering of loss and hope. It’s a writer’s showcase in many ways; whether you write poetry, music, lyrics, stories, screenplays or novels, at some level the same needs and demands will eventually apply.

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