Happy 25th Anniversary to U2’s Achtung Baby, originally released November 18, 1991.
For those of us who grew up in the 1980s, the Dublin-bred quartet of Paul “Bono” Hewson, David “The Edge” Evans, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. was an omnipresent and at times omnipotent force within the global music landscape.
Though I was merely a wee lad of six years at the time, my most vivid early memory of the band was watching their video for “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” which featured live footage from the band’s June 1983 performance at the majestic, fog-enveloped Red Rocks Amphitheatre located just outside of Denver, Colorado. Admittedly, I was too young to even attempt to grasp the historical weight of the song which referenced the 1972 shooting of 26 Northern Irish protesters, 14 of whom were killed, by British soldiers during the prolonged “Troubles” conflict that raged across Northern Ireland during the latter half of the 20th century. However, despite my youthful naiveté, I was more than capable of appreciating Bono and his bandmates’ dynamism, and their uncanny ability to make music that was damn near impossible to forget. Put more simply, I liked what I heard, and I liked it a lot.
Three and a half years later in March 1987, the band released what many critics and fans alike still consider to be their seminal work, The Joshua Tree. A triumph of songcraft, U2’s ambitious fifth studio album is arguably one of the finest, most fully realized long players to surface in the past thirty years. It’s certainly one of my favorites of all time and to this day, whenever I hear the familiar melodies of “With or Without You,” “Bullet the Blue Sky,” Where the Streets Have No Name,” “In God’s Country,” or “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” among the other album tracks, I’m instantly and nostalgically transported back to the halcyon days of my youth.
In 1988, U2 followed up The Joshua Tree with Rattle and Hum, a hodge-podge of an album comprised of live recordings, cover versions, and new songs, including collaborations with music luminaries Bob Dylan and B.B. King. Though commercially successful, the album and accompanying film documentary were met with substantially more tempered critical acceptance than its precursor. Some critics perceived the project to be pretentious verging on the sanctimonious, the manifestation of a band attempting to reconcile their newfound superstardom with their inflated sense of their own self-importance.
In the wake of the backlash they incurred as the ‘80s drew to a close, the foursome found themselves stuck at a creative crossroads, questioning the musical identity they had worked so diligently to develop during the previous decade, while simultaneously itching to redefine their sound and aesthetic. "We were the biggest, but we weren’t the best" Mullen explained to Rolling Stone in 1992 during the band’s ambitious, nearly two-year Zoo TV tour, "That was an awful thing to feel—to go onstage in front of 17,000 people and go, 'Whoopee!' when we were feeling like shit, that it wasn't as good as it should be, that we really hadn't done our homework."
As an antidote to their creative stagnation, the group went back to the drawing board, so to speak, and into the studio with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who had assumed production duties for The Unforgettable Fire (1984) and The Joshua Tree. Steve Lillywhite, who produced the band’s first four records, also contributed his expertise to the recording sessions which kicked off in October 1990. Craving a change of scenery to help reinvigorate their creative energies, the band selected the famed Hansa Studios in Berlin, not too far from where the infamous Berlin Wall had been demolished less than a year before. Hansa may ring a bell for some, as classic albums by David Bowie (1977’s Low and Heroes), Iggy Pop (1977’s The Idiot and Lust for Life), Depeche Mode (1984’s Some Great Reward and 1986’s Black Celebration), and Pixies (1990’s Bossanova) were recorded either in part or in full there.
The recording sessions for U2’s seventh studio LP were fraught with tension, as while Bono and The Edge were advocating for the band to embrace new directions, Clayton and Mullen allegedly felt threatened by what they initially perceived as an unjustified departure from their signature rock-based approach. But ultimately, through their dogged resolve and their mutual respect for each other, they conquered their conflicts to craft Achtung Baby, reinventing and reenergizing themselves in the process.
"Berlin was a baptism of fire," Clayton suggested in the 2011 documentary film From the Sky Down. "It was something we had to go through to realize what we were trying to get to was not something you could find physically, outside of ourselves, in some other city—that there was not magic to it and that we actually had to put the work in and figure out the ideas and hone those ideas down."
On Achtung Baby, U2 pushed their sound down paths they had never traversed before while tapping into a variety of stylistic inspirations, including a more noticeable reliance on multi-layered industrial and electronic flourishes. And through Bono’s more intimate lyrics that dissect the fundamental nature of the human condition, spirituality, and love, rather than the various ills of the world at large, the album is a rebellion of sorts against the then-rampant perception that the band took themselves too seriously and were too geo-politically inclined. It was “the sound of four men chopping down ‘The Joshua Tree,’” as Bono once explained it.
While the twelve songs that comprise Achtung Baby are noticeably more understated relative to the soaring, grandiose fare that defined The Joshua Tree, the album is no less inspired and enthralling. Thematically, the album rivals the emotional heft of the band’s previous efforts, but it’s more introspective overall, less preoccupied with the weight of the world. Moreover, the group seems more liberated, finally embracing the more gratifying dimensions of being one of the most universally beloved bands.
"Rock & Roll is ridiculous," Bono insisted to Rolling Stone in 1992 during the band’s Zoo TV tour. "It's absurd. In the past, U2 was trying to duck that. Now we're wrapping our arms around it and giving it a great big kiss. It's like I say onstage—'Some of this bullshit is pretty cool.' I think it is the missing scene from Spinal Tap—four guys in a police escort, asking themselves, 'Should we be enjoying this?' The answer is, fucking right. It's a trip. It's part of the current of rock & roll that just drags you along—and you can feed off it.”
Within the first 45 dissonant seconds of album opener “Zoo Station,” awash with distorted guitar and industrial drum beats, it becomes glaringly obvious that this is not your typical U2 record. The sense of disorientation is exacerbated by Bono’s manipulated vocals which make him sound as if he is submerged underwater, as he declares, “I'm ready / Ready for the laughing gas.”
Nearly half of the album’s songs were released as official singles, though while each is excellent in its own right, they don’t necessarily represent the strongest fare on the album (more on this later). Lead single “The Fly” is the hardest-rocking song on the album, and unquestionably one of the more intriguing compositions. The crunchy, somewhat jarring guitar riffs unexpectedly segue into the sweet melody of the chorus shortly after the one-minute mark. The song encapsulates the incongruous juxtaposition of the abrasive and discordant with the melodic and resonant, which forms the predominant sonic thread heard across the album.
Follow-up single “Mysterious Ways” is the song I suspect most people first remember hearing from the album due to its ubiquitous presence on radio and MTV. Atop the album’s most funk-indebted groove, the song celebrates the exalted power of spiritual love, or romantic love, depending on your interpretation.
The energized, grinding “Even Better Than the Real Thing” is open to various interpretations, but could be about the euphoria of sex, or more broadly, people’s insatiable need for gratification. The dazzling breakup song “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is an impassioned examination of the volatility of relationships and the hollow void that remains in the heart when love dissolves.
The anthemic “One” is arguably Achtung Baby’s most enduring single, largely due to its core message that human beings must strive toward unity, despite or rather because of our differences (“One love, one blood, one life, you got to do what you should / One life with each other: sisters, brothers / One life, but we're not the same / We get to carry each other, carry each other”). Directly inspired by the reunification of West and East Germany in 1990, it’s a universally salient sentiment that can be applied in various ways, depending on how the listener interprets it. Uniting forces with your partner in love, with your bandmates (in the case of Bono and crew), with your fellow citizens.
“I never saw the song as something hopeful or comforting,” Bono confessed to the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “To me, it was a very bitter song. It is a song about coming together, but it's not the old hippie idea of ‘Let's all live together.’ It is, in fact, the opposite. It's saying, ‘We are one, but we're not the same.’ It's not saying we even want to get along, but that we have to get along together in this world if it is to survive. It's a reminder that we have no choice.”
Among the remaining non-singles, the percussive, shimmering “Until the End of the World” imagines a fictional dialogue between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot, while the downtempo “So Cruel” explores an elusive, equivocal love and the complications of trying to win her affection. The latter track features some of the most evocative lyrics Bono has ever penned, including, “I gave you everything you ever wanted / It wasn't what you wanted / The men who love you, you hate the most / They pass right through you like a ghost / They look for you, but your spirit is in the air / Baby, you're nowhere.”
For me, and contrary to how most front-loaded albums typically play out, Achtung Baby’s final four songs are the true gems on offer here. The latter third of the LP begins with the subdued “Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” an ode to trying to connect with your lover, even when she’s unattainable or just beyond reach and you know you’re destined to fall short.
The album’s finest moment surfaces with the propulsive anthem “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” in which Bono issues his yearning plea to his lover to rescue him from despair, a cry for help accentuated by his screeching vocals and repeated refrain of “Baby, baby, baby, light my way.” The reference to “ultraviolet” light, which cannot be discerned by the human eye, may also be a summoning of spiritual guidance from a higher power.
The contemplative, gorgeous guitar-driven dirge “Acrobat” references the double-standards of expectations we place upon others but cannot adhere to ourselves. The song explores our contradictory nature as human beings, as well as overarching themes of disillusionment and the quest for redemption, fulfillment, and purpose in life.
Achtung Baby concludes with the plaintive “Love is Blindness,” a composition that the band initially considered offering to the legendary Nina Simone, who admittedly could have done wonders with it, considering its somber, stark tone. Beginning with a haunting organ intro that transitions into Clayton’s vibrating bass lines, it’s a sobering, yet beautifully executed meditation on the destructive power of love, which can strip us of our ability to reason with a clear conscience, blinding us to the threat of inevitable heartache.
Not surprisingly, Achtung Baby garnered extensive commercial and critical acclaim upon its release. It debuted at number 1 on the Billboard 200 chart and topped the charts in a handful of other countries, ultimately selling just shy of 20 million copies to date. Several publications’ ranked the album at or near the top of their year-end best-of lists. At the 1993 Grammy Award ceremony, it took home the prize for Best Rock Album by a Duo or Group while Lanois and Eno were named Producers of the Year, though it was eclipsed in the Album of the Year category by Eric Clapton’s Unplugged.
Following the worldwide success of Achtung Baby and the ensuing Zoo TV tour, the band expanded their creative horizons and risk-taking even further with subsequent efforts Zooropa (1993) and Pop (1997), both of which are stellar, albeit underappreciated recordings that are frequently and unfairly marginalized, or in some cases dismissed altogether, in discussions of the band’s career discography.
My love affair with U2 albums admittedly ends with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. While I’ve enjoyed parts of this album and the three that have followed since (2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon and 2014’s much-maligned, iTunes-distributed debacle Songs of Innocence), none of their four albums released in the new millennium have moved me like those that came before. At least to my ears, these albums, while certainly stronger fare than most mainstream rock music out there, sound more formulaic, more rote, and less inspired overall than their precursors.
No matter though, as despite the band’s more recent creative plateau and marketing missteps, their ‘80s and ‘90s repertoire have more than solidified their deserved status as one of the most prolific and thrilling bands in the history of popular music. And for the life of me, I still can’t decide whether The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby is my favorite U2 album of all time. Let’s call it a tie, for now.