U2: Achtung Baby (1991)

U2 remain one of those bands I know I'm supposed to like more than I do.  Scratch that -- I actually like them quite a bit; it's just that I so rarely feel inspired to pull out a U2 album and cue it up.  Some of this is an unfair result of their omnipresence back in high school and college, albums like Boy and Unforgettable Fire and especially Joshua Tree being so culturally pervasive that, like Led Zeppelin a decade earlier, the thought of actually playing one of their records voluntarily very rarely occurred to me.

Achtung Baby is the one exception.  Hard to say why (it was at least as omnipresent when I got to law school as those others had been in the prior years); maybe it's just because it sounds less like a U2 album than those others.  Achtung merged some of the early Britpop and shoegaze sounds I was into at the time into a shinier, more commercial-friendly package, but avoided watering it down by virtue of some truly bang-up songwriting.  Right?  I mean, c'mon, this is a fistful of terrific songs right here.

"Zoo Station" is a pretty solid kick-off, an Echo & the Bunnymen-ish throwback to the band's new wave roots tethered to a compelling beat, pretty much ditching that whole arpeggiated-digital delay guitar style the Edge had been rocking for the preceding years (or at least subsuming it within that percussive hook).  You've got upbeat rockers that sounded more like Ride than U2 of old, songs like "Mysterious Ways" and "Even Better Than The Real Thing" and one of my personal faves, "Until The End Of The World"; and some truly compelling midtempo music that may throw back to the huge anthemic reach of Joshua Tree but with earnest hooks that keep them less at bay, like "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" and "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Against The World."  Even "One," the Lennon-indebted anthem that's probably too much of a standard these days to fairly evaluate, is, Bono-isms aside, a pretty freakin' great song when you try to listen to it baggage-free.

I can't say I've spent much time with post-Achtung U2; I've never disliked the songs I've heard, but it's the last album that compelled me to pick it up and actually listen through (no doubt Zooropa's extention of Achtung Baby's sonic theatrics put me off a bit and I was just too lazy to give their later work a dedicated listen). 

Here's "Until The End Of The World":
 ...and "Mysterious Ways":
And, hey, what the hell, here's R.E.M.'s take on "One":



  1. This is humanfund, btw.

    Nothing for me will approach what U2 did in Unforgettable Fire. The title track alone is probably the most beautiful song of the entire 1980s. It is simply much harder to do great rock and roll with a positive/uplifting/inspiring lyrical theme than one with a negative/cynical/critical theme. Not saying I dislike the latter, just making an empirical observation to underscore my vote for 80s U2 (as opposed to 80s Joel!). The U2 show I saw in early '85 at the LA Sports Arena is still the closest thing I've had to a collective religious experience.

    Achtung gets major points for its ballsy transition from Rattle and Hum (Unforgettable was an equally brave transition from War). I like the bridge in Mysterious Ways, One when I have some free time to feel, but I'd vote for The Fly as the standout track. The final 2 minutes of Edge's soaring guitar and Bono's double tracked falsetto/spoken confessional is as transcendent as anything on Joshua Tree and perhaps UFire.


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