Shortly after the release of 2004's How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, I asked Bono about U2's place in contemporary music. "We're a wedding band now," he said decisively. Before I could inquire about availability and if the Edge knew the chord progressions on "Hava Nagila," he elaborated: "Our biggest accomplishment is that we've made a few songs people want to play during important moments in their lives. That's a very humbling thing ... If we're remembered as a great wedding band, I'll take it."
Dismiss it as a flourish of modesty or a side effect of middle age, but U2 has steadily softened its ambition during its 30-year existence, and that's not such a bad thing. Early on, Bono sang with a moral force that suggested Cotton Mather with a mullet; not satisfied to rock you on "Sunday Bloody Sunday," he needed to convert you. In the towering period that spanned The Joshua Tree to Zooropa, U2 made stadium-size art rock with huge melodies that allowed Bono to throw his arms around the world while bending its ear about social justice. After 1997's Pop a disastrous mix of disco and hubris that provided a harrowing glimpse of career death the band decided to banish the lead singer's politics to venues like the U.N. and focus on writing songs whose chief ambition was to charm rather than to persuade. This late-version U2 has produced a run of hits ("Beautiful Day," "Wild Honey," "City of Blinding Lights") united by a lightness of theme and an ease of sound. Unburdened by the need to make big statements, U2 proved that no one else is better at making universal small ones. (See pictures of U2.)
It's a fine place to close the curtain, with the band flourishing in its contented third act as the one group people of all ages can agree on. Except that U2 isn't quite content. After an almost five-year absence, during which Bono was named one of TIME's Persons of the Year for his work on global poverty and the group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band returns on March 3 with an album called No Line on the Horizon. It offers up a few new hits for the wedding playlist, but No Line on the Horizon is mostly restless, tentative and confused. It's not terrible, but it feels like the work of musicians torn between the comfort of the present and the lure of one last run into the adventurous past.
No Line on the Horizon starts well. "I know a girl," Bono screams on the title track, thrusting us into the familiar cosmos of a U2 hit. There's the martial beat, the fickle female object of desire, the soaring inarticulateness "Ohhhhhh/ Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh" followed by the Edge chugga-chugga-chugging away on his guitar, chasing Bono up the scale note for note and yawp for yawp. It makes you giggle in amazement that the same old tricks keep generating new thrills.
Having set the bar high, U2 gradually limbos underneath it. The trouble begins with "Magnificent," another catchy, thunderous love song out of the recent U2 playbook. At least it seems that way until the arrival of the portentous line "I was born to sing for you/ I didn't have a choice but to lift you up/ And sing whatever song you wanted me to." Delivered with an ambivalent growl by one of the most famous men in the world one who got that way by being a singer of songs and lifter of souls it suddenly sounds less like a love song and more like a grievance. Each time Bono slips out of the Everyman first person ("I know a girl") and into the specific ("I was born to sing for you"), the effect is jarring enough to raise the question, Is he trying to speak for us or to us?