U2 – Achtung Baby

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

It took me at least a decade – probably more – to fully come around on this album. And the “fully” part may be wishful thinking, as I still honestly can’t stand U2 and those feelings remain linked, in part, to this album. There were several reasons for my initial hatred of this album. One was that U2 and I were just growing apart. When I first liked them, I was still in my early teens, not yet fully immersed in alternative and indie. By the time Achtung Baby came out, I was in college and had almost completely moved away from mainstream rock. Another factor was the immense loss of goodwill that resulted from the execrable Rattle and Hum. Bono was insufferable and self-righteous, and the whole band seemed to start believing in their own status (ironic, given how The Joshua Tree balanced the myth of America against the reality of America), fully crossing over into self-parody. Third, this album was inescapable and I resented that. There was not a single party I attended in college post-Acthung Baby that did not include “Mysterious Ways” or “One” on the soundtrack. I never wanted to hear these songs again. Over time, and with distance, I came back to it to see what I might have overlooked. In retrospect, this is the last great U2 album. The title should carry a comma, I think.

What I Think of This Album

This is nothing more and nothing less than U2’s alternative rock album. They get waaaayyyyy too much credit for adopting the harsher guitars and dance beats of their younger peers. None of these sounds are new or innovative – but they are for U2. Where they should get credit is for doing it well. And that should come with a helping of criticism for being clueless, self-satisfied egomaniacs about it. As good as this album was, it represented the point at which I just could not take this band anymore, and that hasn’t changed (though I will admit that “Wild Honey” off of All That You Can’t Leave Behind is a wonderful pop song, and one of my favorite U2 tracks – not surprisingly, it represents a lighter side of the band, which basically does not exist).

The intro to “Zoo Station” is pretty fucking cool, with that nasty riff, the rhythm track, and then the processed drums. What’s hilarious is that U2 wanted to confuse listeners and make them think their stereo equipment was broken . . . which would be my mother’s reaction to that intro. U2 is so laughably out-of-touch, lacking any understanding of the world around them. If they honestly thought their fans would react to hearing distortion and programmed drums with bewilderment and concern that their stereos were malfunctioning, then U2 were truly musical innocents.

The band repeats the awesome intro trick on “Even Better Than the Real Thing. Some of the vocal melody is fine, but the chorus is absolute garbage; the guitar tones later in the song are creative and effective, and the solo is appealing. I hate “One” – the melody, the vocals, the lyrics, all of it. The percussion and guitar on “Until the End of the World” absolutely make this song, which is otherwise <sigh> a conversation between Jesus and Judas. Ignoring that, the Edge shines on this track, using different tones, riffs, and textures expertly.

One of my favorites of all of U2’s entire catalog is “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” again with an outstanding intro. The Edge doesn’t do a lot but his distorted, reverby tone is excellent. And Bono thankfully does not try to do too much with the lyrics; the backing harmonies (which might not be a vocal, I’m not sure) are nice, too. If you want a ballad, I suggest you skip “One” and head straight for “So Cruel,” a marvelous construction featuring piano, strings, and a syncopated rhythm track.

Once again, the intro to “The Fly” just fucking slays. In fact, the entire guitar element of this song is amazing, with a solo that manages to combine the old U2 sound with the new. I wish the Edge would cut loose like this more often. And the percussion works really well, too. I have come to embrace “Mysterious Ways,” though I still find Bono’s vocals annoying, with its funky rhythms (nice congas, courtesy of Daniel Lanois), a slinky bass part, and spy movie embellishments. This is arguably the sexiest U2 has come across on record.

From there, the album ends unimpressively. The “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” line basically ruins “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” which is a decent and almost lighthearted tune. The familiar pattern of Bono’s delivery hampering an otherwise fine musical backing reappears on “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” which, if you tune out the vocals, is a great song. The same cannot be said for “Acrobat,” which is an unsalvageable mess, nor for the eminently forgettable and overcooked “Love Is Blindness,” which features the Edge’s hammiest playing on the album, if not his professional career.

Lanois mostly produced, with Brian Eno contributing and Steve Lillywhite as well; Flood was the engineer, again.

Not surprisingly, U2 ultimately fell back into the same trap as they had post-The Joshua Tree of becoming too convinced of their uniqueness. Bono’s attempt at parody through his Fly and MacPhisto (groan) characters – and this is assuming he is being honest about his intentions, and this wasn’t a latter-day retcon – was fundamentally flawed because the very idea of parodying rock star behavior by creating and adopting different personas – particularly, those that you maintain in public and off-stage – is itself egotistical behavior.

And in any event, the actions and attitudes of these not-at-all-clever creations were pretty close to Bono’s own predilections before and after, most notably perhaps via the fact that “Bono” was a stage name. Young Paul Hewson was in a “surrealist street gang” (Jesus Fucking Christ) and he went by various names, including “Huysman” and “Steinhegvanhuysenolegbangbangbang” (sigh) and “Bono Vox” (roughly, “good vocals” in Latin – eyeroll). Making prank calls to politicians from the stage isn’t that far removed from preaching about the Troubles or singing tributes to Martin Luther King, Jr. In other words, Bono was always a pompous loudmouth – the oversized sunglasses didn’t suddenly render his actions ironic.

More generally, the band spent the years since this era overly concerned with their public and critical perception, wrapped up in the belief that as the biggest band in the world (not my words) they carried some special burden. The whole thing actually speaks to a dearth of confidence and self-esteem, which is evident in their desperate need to record with B.B. King or “steal back” a song on behalf of the Beatles. The fact is that U2 is embarrassed to be U2 but too scared to admit it.

Part of the problem is that U2 really has no organic musical heritage. The Joshua Tree was born of a recent introduction to folk, blues, and roots music. Achtung Baby was a quick adoption of alternative, dance, and industrial sounds. Pop added more techno and electronica elements. But just as a distortion pedal appeared to be a revelation for the Edge in 1991, so too did sequencers in 1997. These things should not have been so eye-opening. It’s just that U2 exists in a vacuum. Worse, they pretend that they don’t, so you get ridiculous statements like that Pop was a conscious effort to deconstruct a four piece rock band. Get over yourselves – what really happened is that you figured out fifteen years after New Order did that you could combine sequencers, drum loops, and guitars. And five years after Jesus Jones did, for fuck’s sake. I ask, where does U2 come from? What can you connect them to? U2 is certainly capable of covering a Dylan, Ramones, or Chuck Berry song, but not with any sincerity. They exist exclusively in their own world.

The Best Thing About This Album

“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?,” though I could just as easily credit the Edge’s guitar playing.

Release Date

November, 1991

The Cover Art

A mess, but you know what? Points for not giving us a typical U2 album cover.

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