Years ago, hanging out on U2 message boards, I struck up a literate companionship with a schoolteacher who asked if I owned Passengers, the album the band had done with Brian Eno in 1995. When I said no, he kept pestering me to get it – “You’re gonna love it, you have to hear it …” However unpredictably, he was right. I listened to it for hours on end. It’s fascinating because it was a collaboration of the 5 of them, so they took a new name, “Passengers,” and conceived an anthology of soundtrack music to imaginary films – yes, very art-rock. But it was clearly a fruitful melding of their two styles. Some of the group’s best songs came out of it: the gorgeous Miss Sarajevo (with Pavarotti, no less), the hypnotic Your Blue Room, and a personal confessional favourite, Slug. –Seriously, that’s a great song about relationships. Go get it, and listen! It's a different kind of conversation in your blue room… Bono made inventive use of his vocal downtime in the mid-90s, and these are great examples.
Most compelling about the project, though, was the sense I had that it is the sound of Eno “playing” U2, like instruments in his studio. I don’t mean to dismiss the equal contribution of Adam, Edge, Larry, and Bono, and their tastes probably overlap a lot … but I still think if Eno could be U2, he’d sound like Passengers.
So it’s a surprise and a pleasure to NOT hear that at work on No Line on the Horizon. It speaks volumes about their long history together, and about the respect they have for each other’s creative identities. Eno and Lanois co-wrote and performed on most of these tracks, but they did not overtake them. Lanois is a significant difference, too: while Eno makes superb atmospheric brain music, Lanois’s gift is for atmospheric soul music, and it shines all over this record.
The little vignette, Fez, that precedes Being Born, is the purest Eno moment here (or Elvis Presley & America moment – The Unforgettable Fire at its most free-form).
It’s also helpful to learn that U2 recorded in Fez, Morocco, and it feels like a deliberate spatial, cultural shift away from the preceding funky and familiar, maybe a lifting off again from orientation. It’s a beautiful transition … restfully quiet, yes, but unstructured and vaguely chaotic. The landscape is changing.
There’s a hurdy-gurdy clatter from Fez into Being Born, this intense, single-minded existential travelogue … which closes with an arresting image blending speed and planes and boats and birth and blood and arrival and finally…joy:
Head first, then foot/Then heart sets sail
Being born, and born again. Amen.