[The Past Presents] U2 – “Achtung Baby”

The Past Presents revisits revered albums from the past 20-25 years to ask the question, “Is this album still a classic, or has it lost its edge over the years?”. Was it a great record for that particular time and place, or is it something we’ll be passing on to our kids? It also looks at the “lost classics” – countless albums that should have earned more attention but for one reason or another fell through the cracks.

The comparison of music, particularly specific albums or songs, to mile markers on the highway of life is an apt one. It’s exceedingly easy to trace your life’s path just by looking at your record collection. It’s all there: the highs and lows, memorable moments, moments of high accomplishment, and periods of boredom and depression, preserved for all time by the music that scored those moments. In my own experience, U2 found a place on many of life’s mile markers; but, since its release, Achtung Baby has been more like another passenger in the car than just another mile marker. U2 first cropped up for me in 1983. I remember hearing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “New Year’s Day” on the radio seemingly every time I got in the car. Soon “Pride” was also a fixture on every car ride. It went on and on. U2 were always there, lurking around the edges, always slightly out of synch with me. I liked the band, but it was mostly the singles that stuck with me. I was, without a doubt, a greatest hits fan when it came to U2.

Everything changed in the fall of 1991. At this time I was starting my senior year of high school. My friends and I had been obsessed with music since middle school and we showed no signs of stopping. That summer of 1991 we’d logged many hours at the local record store and spent many more hours pouring over video tape of recent episodes of 120 Minutes (for those too young to remember, this was an MTV show that played videos from alternative/indie/punk bands). I remember being slack-jawed the first time we saw the video for Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” When that video ended I knew this band from Seattle had just changed something for me. What I didn’t know was that I would have that feeling again just a few weeks later when U2 released the video for “The Fly,”the first single from their new record, Achtung Baby.

Achtung Baby was the first album that I actually went out of my way to buy on the release date. I had a free period at school that Tuesday and I spent the better part of that hour in the record store waiting for the UPS delivery to arrive. Once I bought the disc I agonized through the rest of the school day until I could get home and play the disc. After the first few songs had passed I knew this record was special. This was nothing like the U2 of the 80’s; this was a complete reinvention of U2 that would either make them an institution of my generation or propel them into obscurity.

Now approaching its twentieth birthday, Achtung Baby stands tall not only as U2’s masterpiece, but also as one of the more important records of the 90’s. The question I’ve often come back to over the years is why? Why is Achtung Baby such a special record and why has nothing U2 recorded since been as good? One reason, and perhaps the most important reason, is that this record documents the peak of U2’s experimental tendencies. When you listen to this album you feel that the band wanted to do something very different with their music and it doesn’t seem to matter that much if the masses loved it or not. There are layers all over these songs. The Edge’s guitar effects are piled on top of one another adding countless nuances to the sound. The rhythm section explodes with a groove and swing never heard on other U2 records. Achtung Baby sees Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton move from being the foundation of the band to the driving force, and ultimate navigator, behind every track. Subtly, they command this record. U2’s vocals and lyrics are also at their best. Bono isn’t nearly as heavy-handed here, instead opting for a message that is grander and yet much more personal that previous albums. If you’re interested in a really interesting take on the lyrics of Achtung Baby, do yourself a favor and read Stephen Catanzarite’s 33 1/3 Series book on Achtung Baby.

As “Zoo Station” gets the album started, you’re hit with the volley between The Edge’s guitar and the distorted explosions of Mullen’s drums. From the beginning it was clear this album was going to be different. Anyone still hoping for The Joshua Tree 2 probably just turned it off and walked away. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” sounds like the beginning of a party that’s setting up to be an all-night throw-down, but as the record moves into “One and “Until the End of the World” it becomes clear that the free-for-all has gone terribly wrong.

Achtung Baby was like nothing the mainstream had heard before. Many elements prevalent in underground experimental music were put to new uses in U2’s overhauled pop structure. Distorted and overdriven sounds abound on this record. There are subtle nods to the sound of Sonic Youth, Jesus and Mary Chain and even The Stone Roses here, but you can’t really pin them down. The sound is big. It pulses and has life. This record wants to go out on the town and find trouble, like a drunk trying to escape the past. I think that’s why the slower, more contemplative songs like “One” and “So Cruel” live so comfortably amidst the sonic assault of the rest of the record. Every wild night has some slower hours, some moments for reflection.

The back to back winners of “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways” still amaze me. These two tracks were huge hits, and did a great deal to make this record a success. These two songs are fantastic examples of how U2 took inspiration from other burgeoning genres of the late 80’s and early 90’s and made them into something genuinely their own. “The Fly” is heavily anchored in industrial music. The rhythm and guitar sounds take the soul of the industrial sound and twist it into something that’s uniquely U2. “Mysterious Ways” does the same thing with the dance music beginning to blossom in the UK. The dance-psychedelia of Manchester and beyond becomes inspiration for this song. The nice thing is the inspiration in the music remains that. At no point do you think, this is U2’s industrial song. This is U2’s sound.

Achtung Baby is gritty, flashy, seductive, haunting, tempting, and reckless. This is a soundtrack for life-changing chaos. When the record was recorded U2 was in a chaotic period of self-rediscovery, so it’s only fitting that this music reflects that. Achtung Baby will remain an important piece of music because it perfectly captures a moment that all of us experience at some point in out lives, the chaos of soul-searching and self-examination. Everything is scattered, you can’t tell which end is up and you go a little crazy trying to cope with it. In the end things come through mostly intact on the other side. Achtung Baby is the memory of our emotional storms and our map through those that lie ahead.

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