When I heard last Fall that new albums were forthcoming from both Morrissey and U2, I was thrilled. Not only are they two of my favorite musical artists of the last 20+ years, but they have established themselves as among the most important of their time. Naturally, I was hopeful that their new records would be good, but being a realist about the fact that the quality of a band’s or songwriter’s work tends to wane over the years, I braced myself for disappointment. If just one of these albums was strong, I’d be satisfied.
Well, my most optimistic hopes were realized. Both Morrissey’s Years of Refusal and U2’s No Line on the Horizon are excellent, once again proving the staying power of these artists. In the latter case, however, it’s a more significant achievement. I have noticed that most bands have approximately a ten year period of inspired creativity, after which the quality of their music begins to diminish. This seems true of all the great bands which remained together for more than a decade, e.g. The Rolling Stones, The Who, Queen, Pink Floyd, REM, etc. It also seemed true of U2, since after their 1991 classic Achtung Baby their work has been good but not great. However, No Line on the Horizon breaks this trend, and the ten year hex just noted, in dramatic fashion. From the mesmerizing and addictive opening title track to the eerie closer, “Cedars of Lebanon,” Bono and his mates seem inspired. Lyrically, Bono has yet more to say and has found new ways to say the things he’s already said. Musically, the Irish lads have managed—even in their 30th year as a band—to explore new territory, both in terms of chord structures and production approaches.
Meanwhile, the Moz has made his own strides on Years of Refusal, which is one of the strongest of his solo career now spanning more than two decades. It is also one of his most energetic, as many of the songs were tracked live, and Jerry Finn’s deft production preserves an immediacy of feeling on the other tracks as well. Morrissey’s voice is as strong and rich as ever, and his slowly revolving cast of supporting musicians serves the songs well, filling the album with memorable hooks and phrases.
So I’ve been enjoying both of these albums immensely. But as I’ve listened, I’ve been struck by the stark contrast in worldviews. Interestingly, both Years of Refusal and No Line on the Horizontypify the personalities and values of Morrissey and U2, respectively. In fact, one might say that each album is a definitive statement of sorts for each artist, at least relative to their output thus far. And I would sum up the prevailing themes as follows. For Morrissey, it boils down to temporality, resentment, and despair, while for U2, the thematic core is eternity, grace, and hope.
Temporality vs. Eternity
Morrissey’s preoccupation with his mortality was especially keen on his previous album, Ringleader of the Tormentors, but the theme shows up on Years as well, with such lines as these: “time grips you slyly in its spell and before you know, goodbye will be farewell, and you will never see the one you love again” (“One Day Goodbye Will be Farewell”). For the Pope of Mope, life is a bitter struggle where “Only stone and steel accept my love” (I’m Throwing My Arms Around Paris”) and “To the rescue nobody ever comes” (“When Last I Spoke to Carol”). And the best he can do in the way of final comfort is to consider how death might end it all, and “we will be safe and sheltered in our graves” (“Momma Lay Softly on the Riverbed”). But for U2, the expectation of afterlife is an abiding source of comfort. In “Get On Your Boots” Bono assures us, “laughter is eternity, if joy is real.” His joy is to “magnify” his Maker, as he sings, “I was born to be with you… I was born to sing for you. I give you back my voice. From the womb, my first cry was a joyful noise” (“Magnificent”). But perhaps nowhere is the theme of eternity more clear than in the title of the album and title track: “No line on the horizon.” For those who have eternal life, as is the hope of every Christian such as Bono, there is no such line because there is no end to what lies ahead for us.
Resentment vs. Grace
The Christian hope of eternal life is, of course, the result of divine grace and forgiveness, which comes to us through Christ. Bono sings passionately about this grace, especially in “White as Snow,” the potency of which is underscored by the fact that the melody is a variation of that from the classic hymn “O Sacred Head Now Wounded”): “Once I knew there was a love divine. Then there came a time I thought it knew me not. Who can forgive forgiveness where forgiveness is not? Only the lamb as white as snow” (“White as Snow”). In contrast to this, sadly, Morrissey’s world is one of self-loathing and resentment. In one of his more sardonic songs on Years of Refusal, he sings, “It’s not your birthday anymore. There’s no need to be kind to you. And the will to see you smile and belong has now gone” (“Its Not Your Birthday Anymore”). And his own refusal to forgive—perhaps offering the key to interpreting the album title—is plain in “Sorry Doesn’t Help”: “Sorries pour out of you…like a QC full of fake humility. But sorry doesn’t help us, and sorry will not save us. And sorry will not bring my teen years back to me…. Sorry won’t undo all the good gone wrong.”
Despair vs. Hope
So for the Moz, in the end there is only despair. “There is no hope in modern life,” he tells us in “Something is Squeezing My Skull.” And elsewhere he stoically declares “Disappointment came to me and booted me and bruised and hurt me but that’s how people grow up” (“That’s How People Grow Up”). And in the closing track he sums up his own experience accordingly: “Could this be an arm around my waist? Well, surely the hand contains a knife. It’s been so all of my life. Why change now? It hasn’t! Now this might surprise you, but I find I’m okay by myself” (“I’m OK By Myself”) Or so Morrissey tries to convince us (and himself?). These are the album’s lyrical book ends: “I’m doing very well” and “I’m okay by myself.” But in between its all angry despair. Indeed, Morrissey’s world is a lonely one. Things couldn’t be more different in U2’s world, where Bono proclaims, “I know I’m not alone” (“I’ll Go Crazy if I Don’t Go Crazy Tonight”). There is plenty of pain and sorrow, but it is redeemed: “This foolishness can leave a heart black and blue. Only love can leave such a mark. But only love can heal such a scar. Only love unites our hearts” (“Magnificent”). There is a profound and exhilarating sense of purpose: “Every day I die again, and again I’m reborn. Every day I have to find the courage to walk out into the street with arms out. Got a love you can’t defeat, neither down nor out. There’s nothing you have that I need. I can breathe” (“Breathe”). And there is that final hope: “We’re gonna make it all the way to the light” (“I’ll go Crazy”).
No one has commented, so I feel I must. This analysis is brilliant and spot on. It’s amazing to me how Morrissey can seem to be getting more mentally/emotionally healthy over the past couple of albums, yet his lovable screwedupedness is really thrown into stark relief by U2’s spiritual optimism.
Did you find No Line to be a little less accessible than the last two at first? My friend Geoff and I felt that way. He proposed it’s because the hooks in most of the new tunes come much later in the songs than they do on the last two records. He posted some actual minutes and seconds on my FB profile. He may have a point…
To answer your question, yes, I do think No Line on the Horizon is less accessible than U2’s previous two albums, but my explanation is different than your friend’s. I think its a combination of several factors. Musically, the chord progressions of the songs on NLOTH tend to be more complex, and although the songs tend to have more hooks than on previous albums, the hooks appear less frequently in the songs (e.g., the lovely cello melody in “I’ll Go Crazy…”). Lyrically, there is much more subtlety, imagery, and cryptic symbolism on NLOTH than perhaps any U2 album. So, naturally, it takes more (thoughtful) listenings to unpack these elements. I’m still trying to understand the line “God is love, and love is evolution’s very best day.” And there are many others which tantalize with artful ambiguity, even while the Christian themes of grace, redemption, and eternity are unambiguous. Such a pleasing combination of clarity and mystery is always a sign of great art, whether its music or any other genre.