A Closer Look: U2’s “Achtung Baby” (1991)

“You miss too much these days if you stop to think.”-U2, “Until the End of the World.”

So soon after the massive explosion of U2’s fanbase after the success of “The Joshua Tree,” the Dublin lads unfortunately found themselves being typecast by critics. They took themselves too seriously. They didn’t have any fun. Where could they possibly go after such a huge success? And wasn’t it a little pretentious to think they could mend the world with just eleven tracks that’d sold 25 million copies?

Thankfully, our heroes have wrestled with the music industry before. If the critics wanted looser, less serious, more fun music, let’s make them eat their words. Let’s go all in on this. Complete 180. Let’s play at being rock stars. Satirize the lifestyle. It’ll be hilarious. Until we start enjoying it.

“Achtung Baby” is a wild exploration into the darker, grittier and filthier side of U2 on the cusp of a brand-new decade for creation. It’s an industrial landscape of distortion, haze and nightlife. It’s a product of its time that never loses that original appeal to kitschy nostalgia, but instead just gets more intriguing with age.

Arguably the most entertaining and interesting tracks production-wise the band has ever released are on here. Despite the darker vibe, it’s such an irresistibly feel-good album, flirting with huge topics in a more humorous and sardonic way than before.

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” is one track that perfectly captures this. It takes the listener through a swirling soundscape of confidently sneered lyrics, distorted guitars and a high-heart rate bass. It’s both sensual and self-assured.

Personally, I’m not the hugest fan of this song-I view it on the same level as the often-forgotten “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?” (Which I actually enjoy as a track). But, I appreciate the message it brings to the album, that of searching for something genuine under synthetic, societal-created layers of superficiality and giving into the consumer culture.

My personal three favorites on the album are “The Fly,” “Zoo Station” and “Mysterious Ways.” I feel like these three songs perfectly encapsulate the feeling of “Achtung Baby;” the three things U2 was shooting for in their new rendition of a band.

“Zoo Station” captures the feeling of creativity and reinvention as a new group, with lyrics like “I’m ready for what’s next” and “I’m just a few stops down the line from your love.” The train theme–and instrumentals that mimic the rocking and swaying of a train car–give a feeling of anticipation for the journey the band is about to take a listener on. We’re about to get off at a completely unknown destination of shining bright lights and bustling nightlife, and Bono is staying coy, calm and playful throughout the arrival.

“The Fly,” sung from the perspective of Bono’s egomaniac alter ego of the same name, is a gritty and industrial phone call from the pure human side of the psyche. Bono mumbles and huffs his way through the track over a distorted and looping guitar riff from The Edge, breathing in desire and breathing out lines like “A man will beg/A man will crawl/From the sheer face of love/Like a fly on the wall/It’s no secret at all.” It’s sexy ego-fueled trip into the new rock star persona.

“Mysterious Ways” is pure fun. The band reassures fans that “it’s alright” over a funky groove, percussion fueled by bongos and a fuzzy bass line. I especially love the end of the track, where lines of members singing the chorus layer over each other until Larry takes control and fades the track out with a rumbling percussion line. It’s dancey fun, combining a splash of attitude with a carefree groove. Lift my days, light up my nights, indeed.

I have to mention “Until the End of the World” because it’s my dad’s favourite and he reads my blog. This track is a guitar-fueled lament Bono groans from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, bringing a touch of U2’s signature religious imagery and inspiration into the crazed antics of the album. I especially love the end, as the song roars into a tidal wave of guitar. It’s like a trip through the mentality of the consumer-driven culture of the time, growing increasingly crowded with noise as it scrabbles for a moment of clarity.

“One” is that calming moment of clarity in the track listing, offering a ballad of accepting that though difference divides us, we should at least be able to share in the fact that we’re all human. The song both pushes back and argues against the imaginary person it was written to and offers a hand extended in peace, showing both sides of human nature and the process of genuine resolution. It’s subtle and gentle progression over the runtime reminds me of the progress of growth and concession made throughout resolutions and the maturity found through them, and I like how blunt and unashamed to offend some of the lyrics are. 

But by the time Bono sings “One” for the last time, I’m smiling both because the instrumentation makes me feel like everything’s going to be ok and because I feel like maybe I’m not wrong to think we can indeed carry each other.

“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” is another moment of genuine emotion, as Bono reaches into his upper register to ask for guidance through a time of intense confusion. The rhythmic structure of the track and the looping of both the guitar riff and the vocals creates a calming and reassuring vibe, placing a feeling of peace back into the minds of listeners.

The album ends on an unsettling and slow-burning note with the dark and pleading “Love is Blindness.” This song oozes a feeling of desperation, wrapping up the exuberance and celebration of the album with a quivering lament, perhaps to symbolize the effect such excesses have had on human emotion and mentality. Adam’s bassline on here is the only sign of life, searching wildly for humanity in a cold, concrete landscape.

Overall, this album is an excellent creation of a new sound and image for the band, spawning a tour I can only wish I’d been alive to see and what’s viewed as their second peak. The Edge’s new experimentations into the world of delay pedals, production tricks and layering, along with Larry’s voyage into different forms of percussion (cowbell, bongos, synthetic drum machines) mesh beautifully with Adam’s electrifying performances as the band’s instrumental heartbeat and Bono’s self-reflective lyrics of personal vice.

It’s the band both narrowly avoiding a breakup and keeping their skill of observing the world sharp by indulging in the rock star life, and personally, I think the indulgence does their style good.

Join in next time as I take a closer look at the band’s most underrated album (and yes, another one of my favourites), 1993’s “Zooropa.”

Thanks for reading, and God bless.

-A.L.D.

(Photo credit: U2/Island Records/artists Steve Averill and Shaughn McGrath; retrieved from Wikimedia Commons and iTunes).

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