Classic Album Revisited: U2 – Achtung Baby

U2 - Achtung Baby

How time flies, in the Fall of 2021 U2’s Achtung Baby will be thirty years old. For myself and many others, this album not only represented some of the best of U2’s creative abilities but represents one of the finest rock albums ever to be released. One only has to review any Greatest Album lists to see the album’s high entry. Often less discussed is the fact that Achtung Baby represents one of the greatest midstream realignments for a successful band ever attempted. The release would ensure they would survive not only the “Great Band Culling” at the end of the 20th century but see them continue to great commercial success throughout the subsequent thirty years. Achtung Baby would be a ground-shaking shift from U2’s prior releases The Joshua Tree and the movie soundtrack Rattle and Hum.

U2 would successfully reinvent the band with the release of Achtung Baby as they submerged their earnest dour image and replaced it with something more self-deprecating and frenetic. The album cover alone moved from monochrome tones to an explosion of images and colour that hinted this would not be The Joshua Tree version 2.0. The true origination point for Achtung Baby would be New Year’s Eve 1989 when U2 played their final Joshua Tree homecoming concert in Dublin. Bono stated, “We won’t see you for a while, we have to go away and dream it all up again.” This statement had many fans and critics wondering if U2 was calling it a day. There would be times during the creation of Achtung Baby when those ponderings almost became reality.

The band initially wanted to record in East Berlin at the end of the Cold War. They intended to capture the spirit of reunification that was rife in Berlin as East Germany went into extinction and the Berlin Wall fell. They decamped to the legendary Hansa Studios to record what would be their 7th album and were shocked by the state of the recording venue. Additionally, they suddenly realized that none of the band members was on the same musical page. All agreed they didn’t want to record The Joshua Tree part two but what would follow it was anyone’s guess. Bono wanted to reflect rap music influences and the Manchester Scene, Edge was lobbying for experimental music, noise rock, electronica and alternative guitar sonics, while Adam wanted to add the influences of dance club sonics.

Rounding things out, the hanging judge of the band, Larry Mullen had developed a serious appreciation for Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix sonics. It did not help that instead of finding inspiration in Berlin the band instead found malaise, gloom and a dismal inhospitable winter that had set in over the city. The divergent opinions and disagreements on what the next album should sound like were to get so intense that the band almost broke up as sessions were unproductive and filled with tension. At one point Adam offered his bass to Bono and told him to play what he wanted himself. The differences would break down to the hats (Bono and Edge) vs. the haircuts (Larry and Adam). Two things would salvage the situation; past collaborator Brian Eno would enter the studio to assist in ironing out recording sessions and the song “One” would miraculously emerge in a studio session giving the band something to encourage their continuing to record the album and the band.

U2 with Eno and Daniel Lanois would reconvene in Dublin holing up in a rented manor. “One” would provide a backbone and incentive for the creation of the rest of the release. The band would come to realise on relistening to the demos from Berlin that the material recorded was better than they had initially believed. It is in the rented manor in Dalkey, Ireland that Bono would take the first steps in developing his alter ego The Fly. This character would go on to become the leather-clad egomaniac McPhisto during the Zoo TV Tour. It is also at Dalkey that Eno and Lanois aided by Flood would look to erase anything that had sounded like prior U2 sonics. After the work at Dalkey, the band would then move to their bolthole recording studio Windmill Lane Studios where the entire band seemed to relax producing the bulk of the actual recording found on the album. More than a third of the album was created in the last months of studio time lapping what had been produced in the year prior. The band that entered the studio desperate in some ways to deviate from their prior works and had no clue how to pull that off suddenly had their answer with the completion of Achtung Baby.

Achtung Baby would inculcate the sonics of emerging Alternative, Industrial, Electronica and Dance genres and married them to U2’s distinct already established sonic. The band would capture the end of the century Zeitgeist and turn a mirror on the era. They would deal with current events like the end of the Cold war, the reunification of Germany, while utilizing ideas pulled from Nihilism, Existentialism and Absurdism. The band known for voicing their political opinion would somehow turn away from “Politics” capital letter to a more personal and introspective take on the events and movements that influence the person. Topics would cover; love, spirituality, faith, betrayal, confusion, loneliness, and the feelings of inadequacy when coping with the larger world. The underlying personal events that would inform the album would be Edge’s impending marital breakup, Bono’s daughters’ births, how to deal with the aftermath of the success from The Joshua Tree era along with confronting the vitriol and criticism of the Rattle and Hum movie. This entire stew of ingredients would be the aegis that would produce a masterwork.

In some ways, the success of Achtung Baby seemed like a reward for the band’s trial by fire experience in the studio. U2 would create one of their most successful and critically acclaimed works. The album would debut at #1 on US Billboard top 200, See 5 single releases become chart successes, win a Grammy and sell over 18 million + copies. Achtung Baby would also launch a worldwide tour that would quickly become the multimedia/sensory overload event of the decade, the Zoo TV tour.

Achtung Baby would start intentionally with sonics that was nothing like anything attached to U2 in the past. “Zoo Station” was like someone opened the lid to Hades. Filled with distortion, the sound was trippy, hallucinogenic and intense. I cannot fully explain how groundbreaking this opener was at the time as it was a total departure from everything U2 had done in the past. The album and this track’s success are now taken as a fait accompli but this song as an opener was a tremendous risk. Reason being it was a million miles from what fans had come to expect. The song became instantly addictive with vocal modifications, punctuated drums, throbbing bass and schizoid guitar work. Where the band had sledgehammered their beliefs before; on this song and throughout the album they were more subtle and clever yet delivered the same overall impact. On “Zoo Station” lyrically the train motif and almost insane ebullience were unsettling and intriguing. The song’s narrative was taking hits of laughing gas while letting go of the steering wheel in unbridled madness, yet it all made sense and was ever so alluring. The song captured all the madness that could be found at the end of the 20th Century and the fall of Communism.

After the whirlwind ride that is “Zoo Station”, “Even Better Than the Real Thing” would make sure any listener was aware that the opener was not a one-off. This song is so addictive it is no wonder it still wows today. There is a duality for the track in that it is both speaking to a lover and the listener hence breaking the third wall. It was also an ironic jab at our commercial society where hyper marketing is always offering something new and better just around the corner. In contrast underneath the glitter and superficiality, there is the ever-present message of the band looking for something more substantial and of higher worth. The contrast of the lyrics “Well my heart is where it’s always been, my head is something in between” to “We’ll slide down the surface of things” informs the dichotomy. This brilliance in the lyrics is backed up by the addictive layered guitar licks, spectacularly inspired cymbal work and funkified Asiatic tinged bass vibe delivering a direct and satisfying track, all the while not letting up on the initial intensity of the introduction.

In many ways, the legend of “One”, probably the best-known track of the album, follows that of another great song, The Police’s “Every Breath You Take”, where both had a different song meaning than the one interpreted by popular culture. “Every Breath You Take” was about obsession and betrayal but would go on to weirdly become a wedding song. Likewise “One” is about a romantic relationship that is falling apart and on its last leg. It is a heartbreaking examination of how it all went wrong. Filled with pulled punches, betrayal and misunderstanding, but also the belief that the relationship might be salvaged if only, captured in the line, “We get to carry each other”. Somehow popular culture embraced that one lyric and turned it into a unification song. The original message of the track was that love was not perfect but that you don’t throw it away because things get tough. It could also provide the double meaning of we are all humans together relying on each other and that no one could truly be an island. Musically the accompaniment slowed down the breakneck punch of the first two tracks providing a needed breather to handle its weightier theme.

Here we find a song that starts with a minimal opening and builds and builds until it opens to a grand panoramic push that is loaded with emotion. The song is also backed mid-track by strings and a heavy bass that builds gravitas. No matter if the song is a bit misinterpreted it is an enduringly breathtaking track and the song whose advent kept the band from implosion with the exhortation that indeed “we get to carry each other”.

“Until the End of the World” was inspired by both C.S.Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and Brendan Connolly’s The Book of Judas. I could do an entire review just on this song and its magnificent handling of the narrative of a conversation between Jesus and Judas at the last supper and the events that follow. Here is a shorter analysis of the song, Judas thought after Palm Sunday that Jesus was going to conquer the Romans and introduce a physical kingdom, returning Israel to the time of the Hebrew kingdom, reestablishing King David’s dynastical throne. He did not understand that Jesus’ true purpose was to die to save mankind and manifest an everlasting spiritual kingdom. Of course, most of us know what happened next things didn’t turn out as Judas hoped. The miracle of the song is that even if you don’t understand the Biblical nexus of the narrative it is still a powerful song about redemption and forgiveness. The sonics deliver powerful drums; magnificent bass runs and a searing opening guitar riff with guitar spirals all of which convey the fight between the carnal and the spiritual. By the end of the song Christ the one who is the victim of the ultimate betrayal is forgiving Judas stating he will never give up on him. Counter-intuitively the song’s brilliance resides in the fact that you could dance to the whole thing and miss the message entirely. This song is one of the backbones to the success of the album and a masterwork all by itself.

“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is a love song like no other for U2. Displayed is a love/hate relationship with someone who is unstable and brings out the worst in the narrator. The tension of this push-pull relationship is perfectly conveyed with both the lyrics and the accompaniment. The cacophonous guitar work along with echoed falsetto vocal effects conveys the tight rope the narrator is walking. It is a wild ride through a tempestuous relationship.

I have always admired the playlist for the album, and think that “So Cruel” is a perfect accompaniment to “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”. Where that song was a bit more impersonal about the challenges of a doomed relationship, “So Cruel” places a blow upon a bruise in dissecting a distressed marriage. The song was inspired by Edge’s separation and impending divorce. The lyrics also used poetic license in dealing with the trauma of a group of couples/individuals who had been together since high school experiencing their first defection from their tight-knit group. Bono utilized the poetic license to make the track not completely about Edge’s separation but it is a near thing. There is an inherent sadness that can be found in the dramatic piano of the song, the stutter-step drums and evocative strings. The heartbreak of the death of this relationship is captured from the male point of view and displays all the agony and pain of ending a marriage with young children in the mix. In many ways, this song can be read as success ruining a marriage. The downward spiral of the couple is spelt out throughout the lyrics; “I disappeared in you, you disappeared from me,… you put your lips to her lips to stop the lie,… to stay with you I’d be a fool.”, each achingly true lyric placing another knife in the heart. The track highlights themes of regret and sadness that underpin much of the release.

The original second side begins with the scintillating “The Fly”. The song that would introduce the character McPhisto was a combination of Rap, Alternative and Gospel all mixed together. It would also serve as a commentary on the state of the world, personal relationships, fame, hypocrisy and regret. That is a heavy load to carry but the song accomplishes its goal and is another strong entry for song of the album. Edge is simply on fire on this track with his lacerating guitar work as the emphatic drums and bass deliver a rhythm that demanded the listener dance. These two tracks again mirror the one-two punch of the album’s first two songs.

“Mysterious Ways” delivers a romping punch continuing the momentum. The lyrics convey the moon motif that is found threaded through the release. On this track, the Moon is a seductive woman representing the carnal world wooing the young man into the world of carnal delight. It captures the momentary bliss of physical love and the young man’s submission to desire, “If you want to kiss the sky better learn how to kneel, on your knees boy.”

Paralleling the first side again we see a song that releases some of the over the top ebullience of the prior two tracks with “Trying To Throw Your Arms Around the World”. This is the next day walk of shame and hangover from the ecstatic night before personified by the lyrics “Sunrise like a nosebleed, your head hurts and you can’t breath”. The narrator of the song stands in for Bono and his returns home to his wife and kids after a night on the town or tour. The narrator falls on the mercy of his loving partner to make it all better. The narrator/Bono realizes the enormity of his wife’s love and what a paragon she is holding his life and family together. He, in the end, pledges his fidelity to her as he realises he needs her more than she needs him, “and a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” Sonically the trip-hop slower pace of the song allows the listener to catch their breath. The song is a clearing of the throat before the final triads of songs bring home the message of the album.

“Ultraviolet” (Light My Way) is my absolute favourite track on this album. This track continues the examination on the difficulties of marriage in our modern age and the realization that marriage or any relationship is not all cotton candy, hearts and rainbows. There are angry silences, sleepless nights filled with doubt, struggles and setbacks. But if you can hang on through the bad the good resonates so much more. It is made clear Ali is Bono’s rock and the person who keeps him sane, “Feel like trash, you make me feel clean, I’m in the dark can’t see or be seen.” … “When I was all messed up and I had an opera in my head, your love was a light bulb hanging over my head.” The song ends with a recommitment to the relationship. To me, this song is one of the best sonic moments of the album. The selection is a stream of consciousness narrative put to a dance track. The perfect accompaniment of explosive drums, driving bass and jangling guitar is sonic perfection. All these elements combine for a song that counter-intuitively you cannot help dancing too while weighing the demands of a committed relationship. That is a hell of an accomplishment.

“Acrobat” offers up an internal dialogue turned into advice, and is the most like C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters. In that book, Lewis used a literary device where Satan gives advice to an up and coming demon. Here is a take on that format the elder narrator is giving sage advice and warning to a youngster on how the world will wear your good intentions down. It also discusses all the hypocrisy we commit to getting through life. The key refrain is “don’t let the bastards grind you down” encouraging everyone to stay true to their good intentions through all the cant of the world. It is calling for perseverance in the face of adversity. Sonically the song begins on the low ebb and builds magnificently with aggressive drums and an incendiary guitar solo. All of the sonic ingredients make for a galloping miasma of intense anger and confusion that personifies the world we much each face. It is an extraordinary track.

“Love is Blindness” delivers the realization that love requires a mad kind of sightlessness to maintain a relationship. It attempts to convey the mystery of what is love and questions how such a delicate thing can endure. There is both awe and fear defined in love and how it is given. The track ends with an understanding that for love to work one must be blind to the faults in each person in the relationship. Sonically the track is elegiac with its slow movements and funereal churchlike atmospherics driven by Edge’s guitar solo, a painful accompaniment to his failing marriage. The brilliance of the track is not Bono being emphatic about the value of love but his pondering so eloquently the cost of love and leaving the whole question with no definitive answer. A change from U2 in the past having all the answers to the world’s ambiguities. This change in approach would stretch over the next two studio releases.

Achtung Baby would broaden U2’s musical palette and show a band that was not as sure as they had been in their youth about the answers to the questions that face mankind. The album would turn inward focusing on personal relationships. It would exam our societal and individual needs for instant gratification and asks big unanswerable questions. The album would look to display each member’s disappointment with the overall cultural malaise but also look to overcome and embrace these challenges that the world presents. The album would warn that the path to hell would be and for them was paved with good intentions. It would be part Psalms and Ecclesiastes questioning the relationship between God and man. Achtung Baby would capture the band taking an extraordinary leap of faith with no safety net to become “The Biggest Band in the World”, a title that they still have a right to claim into the present day.

U2 with Achtung Baby provided the evidence that it was possible for bands to reinvent themselves that far into their already successful career delivering a masterpiece. They would bring this to fruition by creating an album that sounded nothing like U2 yet was remarkably easy to identify as their work. Finally Achtung Baby would set the band up to continue their success as the Alternative music scene was taking its baby steps into popularity. The album would allow them to reinvent themselves rather than plod off to the tar pits as many of their peers from the ’80s declined and gave up. The risk of upturning all that the listening public had identified as U2 paid off with their most enduring and brilliant masterwork, Achtung Baby as it is truly one for the ages.

 

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