Monday, January 25, 2010

U2 8: Achtung Baby

After the self-congratulatory Rattle And Hum period, a change was necessary. So Bono started smoking in public and changed his persona from a holier-than-thou rock star to an insufferably greasy rock star. To document this change, their photographer bought a few rolls of color film. And the band hung out the newly liberated Berlin in between recording with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to deconstruct their hitmaking sound.
Achtung Baby was a much different sound from what made them big, but the songs were undeniably catchy once they got their hooks into you. Some listeners who sampled the first few seconds of each track immediately rechristened the album Hock-Tooie Baby, but most fans gave it more time than that.
From the uneasy beginning of “Zoo Station” it’s clear that things have changed. Most of the vocals come through a megaphone, and there’s a definite vibe of riding on a rattling train between stops. “Even Better Than The Real Thing” gives us a chance to dance, before “One” arrives to give us chills. This deceptively simple song may well be one of the best they’ve ever concocted. “Until The End Of The World” was already a great set of lyrics until you realized that it was supposed to be a conversation between Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ. The energy keeps going with “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, which really catches fire on the bridge. Eno’s influence on “So Cruel” brings the first half to a calm end.
The hits keep on coming though: “The Fly” was and remains a striking departure, while “Mysterious Ways” still manages to sound good despite its ubiquity. “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World” provides another respite from the neon glare, with a gentle lilt and tender lyrics. But just as with The Joshua Tree, the album reaches its peak in the middle of side two. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” is an absolute masterwork, starting with the mysterious intro resolving into the drums, through each building verse, up through the ending, making it something of a grand finale—so much so that the two songs after that barely register except as encores. “Acrobat” is all chaotic uncertainty, while “Love Is Blindness” plays under the credits, suggesting a not-so-happy ending. (At least in both cases the Edge gets to explore the outer limits of his creativity.)
Achtung Baby re-established the band at a time when they needed to decide whether to keep fishing or cut bait. The boys have stayed busy since then, with some great tracks scattered throughout increasingly infrequent albums and several big tours, but nothing has been as cohesive as this. It’s an album that surprised, and even with all the hit singles, still sounds good as a complete entity.
Two decades on, the band still acknowledged the album’s importance in their career, and its position as a watershed. An anniversary repackage arrived on time, but Achtung Baby wasn’t treated as simply as the previous five. In addition to a 2-CD expansion, which added select B-sides and bonus tracks, there was also a Super Deluxe Edition of six CDs, consisting of the album, the Zooropa follow-up, two discs of remixes, one disc of B-sides and outtakes, and something called “Kindergarten”, which basically stripped down the original album and used earlier vocal takes. (Oh, and it has four DVDs and a thick book, too. An “Über Deluxe Edition” adds the album on vinyl plus singles, souvenirs and sunglasses.) This is all very nice, but besides fleecing the fans who would gladly shell out a couple of hundred bucks for the whole kit and caboodle, it gives short shrift to Zooropa, which really was an entirely different project, and still leaves a few timely tracks by the wayside.

U2 Achtung Baby (1991)—4
2011 Deluxe Edition: same as 1991, plus 14 extra tracks (Super Deluxe Edition adds another 46 tracks and 4 DVDs)


  1. I really appreciate all your reviews, whatever they talk about (and mostly they talk about soloists and groups I like a lot), but, as someone who entered here for the first time attracted by your comments on Dylan's work, I'm becoming increasingly dissapointed: nothing at all since mid October! Are you afraid of reviewing the bootleg-series-and-post-bootleg-series period? Just kidding, but please: in between The Beatles & The Rolling Stones & Bowie & Eno & Joni & even U2, throw us the dylanites a bone or two!

  2. Not to worry -- your prayers will soon be answered! Please keep checking in.

  3. I'll keep checking in, I promise - it's easy to do so since, as I've already said, I enjoy your comments and musings on anything, whether I agree with them or not, whether I like the object of your commentary or not. You're always funny, inteligent, precise, irreverent and demythologizing (the last two are also meant to be good) and you write quite well; I am a writer and a musician myself, but a Spanish one, so please excuse my English.

    And don't worry, I am not one of those Bob warriors who would die for Him and more; I love the man and his music, but I do not throw up my hands in horror if you say that "Wiggle wiggle" is a piece of crap...

  4. These comments, if anything, will keep this blog going for a good while yet. Thank you for the encouragement -- and if English is not your first language, you write it better than some for whom English is their only language!