SONIC REDUCER Who's afraid of growing up in public? Chris Brown and Britney Spears both know the hazards of maturation amid the clatter of public chatter. Still, self-respecting musicmakers such as U2 and Neko Case, who know they must evolve tax-dodging accusations, IMAX 3-D shrugs, fanboy crushes, and overwhelming side projects aside are trying, judging from No Line on the Horizon (Universal) and Middle Cyclone (Anti-). Assorted feints and falters may have U2 and Case retro-cringing later, yet they're in sync with a change year, while critic-proof (meaning critic-ignored) discs by Nickelback linger at the top of the charts alongside recordings by outfits à la Coldplay, which seems to be earnestly doing its best to mime et tu? U2.
It helps, if like Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr., you've detached yourself from any specific place, denomination, and demographic though it's tough to completely shake U2's associations with Ireland, Christianity, and a certain '80s-originated optimism. If the combo bumped up against the Berlin Wall for Achtung Baby (Island, 1991), here, at the edge of the Arab world, it brushes against the ancient walls of Fez, Morocco, where they recorded with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
No Line is a surprisingly measured and subdued recording. Despite Bono's self-conscious "sexy boots" references in "Get on Your Boots," U2 is older, likely wiser, and less ruffled by a sense of urgency. That's why the album's uptempo middle section comes off as somewhat contrived with its familiar arena-ready gestures, though the ensemble finds new ways to squeeze sparks of light and life from a now-hidebound sound, seemingly inspired by the tabula rasa desert. There's the moaning guitar of "Magnificent," the keyboard runs of "Breathe," the helicopter-like swoop barely limning "Fez Being Born," the weary journalist's noir ramblings on "Cedars of Lebanon," and the way the band takes the roundabout way into songs like "Moment of Surrender." Tracks such as "Unknown Caller," which rides on commands like "Restart and re-boot yourself" and "Shout for joy if you get the chance," give the impression that U2 is still attempting to access a global network of fruitful narratives: all it needs to do is quiet its hive-mind to receive new messages.
This isn't Pop (Island, 1997) though obviously widescreen pop still has its uses for vital live performers plying their new disc during a weeklong Letterman residency and on a forthcoming world tour. While Achtung Baby ushered in a more electronic U2, No Line draws its connections with help, no doubt, from Eno to the contemporary music that touched European pop in the '80s and today's synthesized sounds from the north.
In spite of the news of her relocation to Vermont, Case is also searching the dust for enlightenment the dirt of Tucson, Ariz., along with desert dwellers Calexico and Howe Gelb, and marquee names Garth Hudson of the Band, M. Ward, and A.C. Newman. She's still a wild child a quality she so brilliantly trapped in Fox Confessor Brings the Flood (Anti-, 2006) although she's taking charge with new aggression. Check her cover image brandishing a sword atop the hood of a muscle car and her pseudo-lawyerly liner notes ("I, Neko Case, acted alone in the creation of this album...").
Case's voice forever soaring with heady blue-skies power continues to be a joy, backed by a wealth of indie lady warblers like Sarah Harmer and Nora O'Connor.