They came. They saw. They grooved.
Depending on the band, 1991 was either the best of times or the worst of times. A wave of young new bands a part of the massive grunge movement was taking over the world while some of the most popular acts of the 80s were being pushed aside into obscurity. Most 80s bands did not welcome the change and tried to continue their reign into the 90s, most ending up with poor results. U2, arguably the biggest of these 80s bands threatened by extinction, decided to not play it safe like their peers but to reinvent themselves with a new look and sound for the new decade. The result was Achtung Baby, the weirdest, and greatest, thing U2 has ever made.
The band sounds weird right off the bat with album opener “Zoo Station”, where Bono has traded his hymns of Bloody Sundays for a good time in the club (“I’m ready for the laughing gas / I’m ready for what’s next”). Then the next track “Even Better Than The Real Thing” has Bono trying to seduce a significant other – is this really the same Bono that sang “Running To Stand Still”? Yes, this is the same Bono, and this is still U2. Bono, the Edge, and the other two guys you don’t know (Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen Jr. on drums) have always been able to create impassioned songs that play off the raw emotional power of Bono’s singing and the Edge’s inspiring guitar playing. The only difference on Achtung Baby is that Bono is trying to reach us through our hips and desires instead of our spirituality – Bono is trying to be sexy!
There are no fillers on Achtung Baby – each song adds something different to the album. “One” is the song everyone loves and sounds the most like old U2. It’s an excellent song, but it’s not as romantic as most people make it out to be (“Did I ask too much, more than a lot? / You gave me nothing, now it’s all I got / We’re one, but we’re not the same / Well we hurt each other, then we do it again”). Things go back to being weird again with “Until The End Of The World”, which is probably the sexiest song about the end of the world. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is my current favorite song off the album. With its big guitars and bigger chorus, it’s a song only U2 could have made. “So Cruel” feels much longer than it actually is, always consistent with the drums, piano, and bass but keeps layering with each verse and chorus.
The second half of Achtung Baby starts off with “The Fly”, one of the Edge’s finest guitar moments – if you can believe that it’s a guitar he’s playing on. “Mysterious Ways” is the other famous track off the album, the other being “One”, and its beginning guitar lick and infectious chorus is as annoyingly catchy now as it was back in 1991. There’s not a lot I can say about “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World” except that it is such a cool song, something that could have only been made in the Achtung Baby universe. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” and “Acrobat” are both solid songs, but the best is saved for last. “Love Is Blindness” ends the album on a dark, but powerful note. The song depicts love as “a dangerous idea that almost makes sense” with spooky organs and raw guitar that builds but then slowly fades into nothing, leaving listeners hanging onto the very last note.
Considering the album that came before this was The Joshua Tree – sorry Rattle and Hum, but you don’t count as a legitimate album – Achtung Baby sounds so foreign, because it is. Bono had found what he was looking for (get the reference?!) in Berlin, where the band initially tried to record the album (Achtung means “attention” in German). The band absorbed European electro-club music and industrial music and gave it their own special twist. Gone is the spiritual thirst and soaring guitars that accompanied songs about searching for truth and peace in America. Now the Irish foursome is grooving to European club beats and distorted guitars looking for hot babes instead of God.
The album sounds like a giant industrial cluster-fuck because the recording of this album was the worst period of U2’s career. Constantly on the verge of breaking up, the band just could not click and was getting nowhere. Directionless and fearful of becoming culturally irrelevant, The band’s time in Berlin only made things worse when a lack of progress challenged the band’s patience and threatened the band’s career. But then, in one of the great Rock n Roll stories of all time, the band came together and wrote “One”, which they credit to keeping the band together. After “One” was completed the band got their shit together, went back home to Dublin, and finished recording what would be their best album.
Much like what Radiohead would do a decade later with Kid A, U2 created an album that was a complete 180 from what had worked for them in the past for the sake of artistic integrity. The album is challenging to hear at first, and if you’re not a U2 fan this sure as hell won’t convert you into one. However, after many listens, I would argue Achtung Baby to be one of the greatest albums to come out in recent time (Spin Magazine would agree with me). Also like Kid A, the value of this album is just now beginning to be appreciated in a new generation. Bono described Achtung Baby when it first came out as, “the sound of the band chopping down the Joshua tree”, and the wood that came from that tree made one hell of a fire.