Last week, a friend contacted me to ask about my thoughts on an interview published in the Irish Times with producer, Steve Lillywhite. In the article Lillywhite states explicitly that U2′s No Line on the Horizon album was a out-in-out failure. Of course you know that I have my own opinion on this but let’s take a look at Lillywhite’s statement and see what he has to say.
Legendary U2 producer Steve Lillywhite has said the band’s latest album No Line on the Horizon did not achieve what it set out to achieve and its relative failure had affected them.
The album, released last year, sold a fraction of its predecessors and received mostly lukewarm reviews though it did get a five-star rating in Rolling Stone magazine. Lillywhite, who was its co-producer along with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, said No Line on the Horizon lacked a big song and the North African ambience that it tried to recreate did not work.
“At the end of the day, the public are always right especially when you have a platform as big as U2,” he said. “Of course it affects them. They are only human. They put their heart and soul into everything they do, but the sales were not what they expected because they did not have the one song that ignited peoples imaginations.
“It’s a pity because the whole idea of Morocco as a big idea was great. When the big idea for U2 is good, that is when they succeed the most, but I don’t think the spirit of what they set out to achieve was translated. Something happened that meant it did not come across on the record.”
First, let’s acknowledge that Steve Lillywhite has had a long and storied career producing some of the greatest artists and albums in music history. I want to engage his comments not throw them out completely. There is a great deal of nuance in these three paragraphs.
The question is, “Was NLOTH a failure?”
If we are judging by the criteria set forth by Lillywhite in this interview then the answer is Yes. No Line on the Horizon was a failure. However, the easy answer isn’t always the correct answer. Let’s unpack this.
NLOTH sold a fraction of its predecessor and received mostly lukewarm reviews. Sort of. In reality, NLOTH debuted in the Number 1 spot in thirty different countries and received 5 star ratings from RS, Blender, and Q. NME rated it at 7 out of 10 and Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-. While actual units sold may not have lived up to U2 numbers (whatever that means) the album was received well both commercially and critically. Could it be that Lillywhite has the bar set pretty high when it comes to album sales and reviews? I think so.
NLOTH lacked a big song. Let’s take a look at the U2/Lillywhite history books shall we. Lillywhite has worked with U2 on the following projects:
Albums: Boy, October, War, Achtung Baby, How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Album of the Year 2006)
Songs: I Will Follow, Sunday Bloody Sunday, One, Beautiful Day, Walk On, Vertigo
Lacking a big song is a pretty vague excuse for failure. By “lacking a big song” do you mean failing to have a song that rocks the airwaves, becomes part of the cultural consciousness, and wins awards? If that is what you mean than, yeah, NLOTH failed. No doubt, Get on Your Boots was no Vertigo.
Let me ask you a question though? In your city, what station does U2 get played on? What station was playing “Get on Your Boots” or “Magnificent” in your town? The Dallas/Ft Worth radio market is the 5th largest in the nation and when I want to hear U2- old stuff and new- I have to tune into the classic rock stations. Unfortunately, nothing on the classic rock stations- old or new- will have the opportunity to compete for listeners of Lady Gaga and Justin Beiber. While LittleMonsters and those with BeiberFever can have quick and regular access to new tracks those fans of artists like U2 have to go searching. New listeners are harder to come by because their listening habits are subject to a high turnover rate. You put Magnificent on heavy rotation on a Top 40 program and you’ll get that “big hit” you’re looking for. Guaranteed.
The North African ambience that NLOTH tried to recreate did not work. I’ll simply say this- 3 songs with Moroccan drums does not a North African album make.
As a fan of U2 I can understand why someone would feel that NLOTH fell short of its predecessors. I can understand why the producer and the band might feel a sense of disappointment. However, to say that something is a failure because it isn’t larger than life is silly. To come out a full 20 months after an album’s release and then judge it by previously unknown criteria is frustrating and an exercise in futility. Songs from this album served as the soundtrack to the World Cup and it has gone on to support the largest and highest grossing concert tour in recent history.
While NLOTH is not my favorite U2 album… I do like it. There are some strong tracks on here- Magnificent, Breathe, Moment of Surrender, Crazy. It may not be perfect but it isn’t a failure by any stretch of the imagination.
You can’t judge the present by your past. You present your gift, knowing that you did everything possible to deliver your best effort. You give it away and then you get back into the studio or hit the road or pound the pavement eager to work on your next offering.