BIRTH OF A NATION: U2’s Achtung Baby

The 1991 sizzling spin cycle twisted instrumental lines
into unrecognizable noise with definable melody. Let’s see how it stands up, 20
years on.

 

BY A.D. AMOROSI

There are things to consider when
approaching the 20th anniversary of U2’s Achtung Baby – things different than most other reissues.

 

This one is based on daring. The first thing to take in when
thinking about Achtung Baby is that
by the time U2 hit 1991, the quartet was considered in most circles to be glum
twats, self-important goofballs who hit Rattle
and Hum
(1988) with the desperation of a vampire and the originality of
Milton Berle. That album and film found the quartet – Bono in particular –
laughably taking to the myth of America’s
roots music of gospel, soul and blues with dumb-headed obviousness. They
practically dressed the part with their modified pilgrim’s hat and cowboy
boots. As a guitarist, The Edge ran out of soundscapes; flanging what Public
Image Ltd.’s Keith Levine once did was no longer enough of a goal for the Irish
six-stringer. Bono, too, as a lyricist had become portentous and presumptive, a
blabby speechmaker and pontificator who fancied himself a white Martin Luther
King Jr. and a strident Martin Luther at once. The grand sincerity of The Joshua Tree had given way to
something akin to schmaltz wrapped up in a fake Indian blanket.

 

Something had to give.

 

But here is the other thing to
consider: rock – not even the so-called alternative stuff – was hardly really
looking for the big give. Rock didn’t
have the elasticity of electronic music, hip hop or dance at that time; barely
does now. Consider the year’s other noted American nu-rock releases: Nirvana’s Nevermind (which is celebrating its own
mega-re-release this year), Pearl Jam’s Ten (it recently received a film documentary directed by Cameron Crowe for its
trouble); Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish.
Hole’s Pretty on the Inside. Solid
efforts all, yet conventional in rock terms. Honest. We honor them because they
fit the standard issue rawk model with rude raw emotion; not because they
innovated.

 

Take a second. Breathe deep.

 

 

 

Anyway.

 

Alterna-rock’s innovation came, as
it often did in the pre-hip hop era, from Europe and the UK. From the
throbbing art-pop of Blur’s Leisure to the ambient wall of woe that was My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless to the skronky rhythms and wonky textures of Happy
Monday’s Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches,
the Brits had an odd wobble to contribute to world sound that became rock’s
dominant invention at that moment. Still, the real rattle and hum throughout
the planet could be best understood through the dub-clubbinesss of house music
and the ghoulish gilded whirr of Berlin’s
post-Krautrock vibe that became an underlying force in so much of the punk
era’s best music. Ask John Lydon, David Bowie and Iggy Pop, the latter two in
particular, whose finest works of 1977 – Low,
Heroes, The Idiot
and Lust for Life – were (and still are) the defining music of the ‘70s latter half. Ask Brian
Eno, a collaborator in Bowie’s
Berlin-based output who, as a producer, brought dense rhythm and weird noise to
Talking Heads most famously before 1990.

 

***

 

(A brief note regarding Bowie should be made here
as he is one of U2’s prime influences then and now. It’s not enough that his
choice in studios and nervously wheedling yet dramatically heroic ambience
influenced Achtung Baby. As U2’s
recent 360 Tour unfurled across several years and continents, the shows opened
with something decidedly un-Berlin in Bowie’s
“Space Oddity.” After that, not only did U2 refer to the song in brief
snippets; the production offered video-feed footage of astronaut Mark Kelly in
space serenading his spouse, wounded senator Gabby Gifford, with the line “tell
my wife I love her very much/she knows” – a bit that still makes my hair stand
on end.)

 

 

 

 

As for Achtung‘s Daniel Lanois, the producer at that point was only known
for mixing Martha & the Muffins and Parachute Club (!) records before Eno
and Bono called upon him. Is that weird, or is it me, that the guy who played
sessions for Raffi would become renowned for such dusky ambient spaciousness?

 

That said, the U2/Eno/Lanois team
(don’t forget mixing master Flood, he of Depeche Mode fame) hit Berlin’s Hansa
Studios with the same intention Bowie had when he dragged Iggy Pop along – a
new career in a new town that would cull from Krautrock, freak electronics and
irked club music. By the early ‘90s, industrial clatter had made its mark, so
throw that in to the murky mix as well. The intention was to make something
heavy, distorted, distanced and coldly ironic. But as they were still U2, there
had to be some stadium-sized hooks to fill the stadium-sized seats.

 

So now, with the vastly expanded
reissue at hand, between Achtung Baby and its Eurodisco follow-up, 1993’s Zooropa (along with B sides, remixes, previously unreleased outtakes and an early,
sketchy blueprint version of Achtung Baby;
not to mention DVDs and sundry collectible ephemera in the inevitable
deluxe/super deluxe/über deluxe editions laid out as collectors’ catnip), we
hear the birth of a nation, a rhythm nation, a moody swelling nation whose arid
angry fuzzy frizzy sexy new anthems were based on the trembling sound of the
wall that had only a decade before come crumbling down.

 

Odd, then, that Bono, in the face
of such geo-social subject matter, dropped the political screeds of his
previous work for the more deeply personal and somehow more universal subjects
that fill the likes of Achtung Baby’s sensualist “Mysterious Ways”
and sinister “The Fly.”

 

The sizzling spin cycle of Achtung Baby – U2’s best full album – twists
its instrumental lines into unrecognizable noise with definable melody. The
Edge’s guitars are blunter than usual – buzzy and FX-laden – yet there is still
an epic sweep to the likes of “One” and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”
that comes through loud and clearer than before on this 20th anniversary reissue. The Edge also found sex during these sessions, rounding
the zonked rhythmic contours provided by Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton
(ultimately the stars of the show along with its producers) like a stud in heat
with his guitars at their flanging, phasing, funky dreamiest on “Even Better
Than The Real Thing,” “Until The End Of The World” and the aforementioned “Mysterious
Ways.”

 

Bono took that cue and found the
sex of his own. Stories of busted hearts and lonely days figure in to Achtung Baby as they have on no U2
album, or Bono stanzas previous to this. “Love is Blindness,” an often
forgotten moment in Bono bookish history, is tenderly and tactilely romantic
with a set of lyrics as stirring as its music. “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”
also has its own unusually vivid way, with carnality, divinity and rousing
righteousness.

 

The inclusion of Zooropa in the 20th anniversary of AB makes complete
sense within this collection, whether you like it or not. As U2 toured the
world with Achtung Baby – and Bono grew
into a caricature – and became more comfortable in its new, darkly electronic
skin, in concert the quartet developed additional arrangements and songs even
more rhythmically inclined and sonically motor-boated. What started as a mere
EP blossomed into a twitchy swirling house record – the Associates-like title
tune, the tipsy, high pitched disco of “Lemon” – as well as a stretch into the
droning dire likes of “Numb” (as sung by The Edge), the eerily menacing
“Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” and the winsomely
heartbroken “Stay (Faraway, So Close!),” a cloth cut from Achtung Baby‘s bliss-busted ardor.

 

If Achtung Baby deserves a ten on its own, Zooropa deserves a nine after further inspection.

 

 

 

The extras – and I’m not talking
about the set of Bono’s bug-like shades that comes with the über collection’s
box set (Ed. Note: currently retailing at Amazon.com for the
entirely reasonable $434.99
) – are a varied lot. There’s the B-sides and
remixes that fans have heard repeatedly and are swell to have in one
collection. There are MTV videos and promo clips from the period. Live shows
from the Zoo. In terms of its visual end, the Achtung Baby making-of documentary From The Sky Down does its best in penetrating the veil of the
usually unseen U2 + Co. at work in a studio
and pre-studio session. Plus its looks outside are pretty gritty. As for unissued
music, you wished there was more-more-more – still circulating among
underground collectors’ circles is the sprawling 3CD Salome bootleg of purportedly purloined tracks dating from the
earliest days at Hansa – but this’ll do nicely: a stripped bare “Down All
the Days,” a version of “Numb” with Bono on vocals instead of
the Edge; the rowdy “Oh Berlin”; the murky moody “Heaven and Hell”; and
the jarring back-to-back “Where Did It All Go Wrong?” and “Everybody Loves A
Winner.”

 

 

 

 

After this time, U2 rarely seemed
so free to adventure. This leads to a final point – the reinvention of U2.

 

Bono craves it, or so it would
seem from his taking on Danger Mouse and his discussions of assaulting the
dance floor and the charts in similar fashion as to what Achtung Baby did two decades ago. Yet there may be no turning back
to that level of success-driven adventure (or adventure-driven success). During
the 360 tour, the band stuck so stalwartly to Achtung Baby, it felt like a duel edged blade – did they know they
could never best it? Or were they looking for that spark?

 

Never before has a mega-watt act
twisted its sound so radically and came out on top. Since that time in 1991, U2
has had other weighty tracks, sensualist personal soliloquies and dense
production – but nothing better than this truly real thing. It might take more
than a change in producer to bring about this sort of invention again.

 

Here’s hoping.

 

[Photos by Anton Corbijn; courtesy U2 & Universal]

 

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