By Calum Marsh | 3 June 2010
Much has been said and written about Achtung Baby as the total reinvention of U2, as an earnest attempt by the world’s most popular rock band to build a new aesthetic from the ground up. In a certain sense, this reading seems accurate: Achtung Baby is intimate, unpretentious, devoid of the self-righteousness in which much of their earlier material is steeped. In short, it isn’t The Joshua Tree (1987). Here U2 embrace new, ’90s-ready sensibilities—irony and cynicism color Bono’s vision like a pair of beetle-eyed sunglasses—but contextualizing this record as some commendably ambitious transformation of stodgy old ’80s U2 into a wildly experimental go-go ’90s U2 strikes me as problematic. As I wrote in my review of last year’s Unforgettable Fire anniversary reissue, the stylistic readjustment of Achtung represented a necessary renewal of U2’s claim on relevance, and necessity bears no real risk. And so now, nearly twenty years after its release, I thought we might take the chance to re-glimpse an aspect of Achtung Baby often lost among the myth-making pop historiographies, the digestibly fluffy band narratives, the since-then image of band-as-cartoon, and all the other shit we can’t seem to leave behind—I thought we ought to remember that more than an interesting story, Achtung Baby is a great album.
“Zoo Station,” the album’s tone-setting first track, opens with a wink: “I’m ready,” Bono croaks through psych-noise and industrial distortion, “I’m ready for what’s next.” What better way to introduce listeners to the sound of the new U2 than by coming out of the gate with your most explicitly experimental material? What we’re meant to think is pretty apparent: drum machines and effects pedals and heavily processed vocals are “what’s next,” and though Bono claims to be ready what he really wants to know is are you, motherfuckers? Because “Zoo Station” can serve no other function than confrontation. It confronts expectations, of which at this point in their career there are surely many, and it confounds them. This is exactly where the myth of Achtung Baby, the legend of it as U2’s reinvention, comes from: it is crafted by U2 and very deliberately offered up front. Mind you, “Zoo Station” sounds stellar: the Edge’s coughing fit of a guitar line is something close to brilliant, the heavy distortion on the vocals jells surprisingly well with Bono’s characteristic bombast, and the drum machine that skitters in over the early guitar heaves render Larry Mullen Jr. largely irrelevant later. But what’s most interesting about “Zoo Station” is that all of this, the abrasive studio gimmickry slathering everything, is a misdirect: aesthetically “Zoo Station” is pretty out-there for U2, but it opens the album precisely because it’s out there; it’s here to hid the fact that beneath a veneer of hip experimentation, Achtung Baby is actually fairly straight-forward. This is still very much a pop album, but it wants, for whatever reason, to make you forget that it is.
Things get marginally clearer on “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” a fun pop-rock song about fucking built around a swinging guitar loop and cute euphemisms for oral sex (cunnilingus metaphors being something of a recurring motif on the album). But it’s the third track, the enormously popular “One,” that should illuminate Achtung’s alarmingly undervalued qualities. Describing “One” at this point is probably a little redundant, but it’s useful to rethink the simplicity of the sentiments expressed here: “You say ‘love is a temple’,” Bono belts midway, “love the higher law.” For a band whose most critically and commercially successful album was an evocation of and earnest tribute to spirituality, so explicitly conflating a crisis of religious faith and a crisis in matrimony is pretty staggering. And even though Bono remained happily married during the album’s recording (it was the Edge whose long-term relationship began to deteriorate), you can genuinely feel the heartbreak in Bono’s voice. “One” resonates because it contains many of the qualities Achtung Baby seems to claim to have moved away from, and it is lent nothing by the superficial changes implemented elsewhere on the album. Their newfound sensibilities certainly allowed such a personal sentiment to thrive—earlier U2 material was built around broader, more self-righteous themes, whereas Achtung Baby, and “One” in particular, are fundamentally personal. The thematic shift is the most drastic and the least superficial, but hip production and shoegaze guitar sounds aren’t the things that make “One” what it is. It should be of no surprise that the song is Achtung Baby’s least experimental song, the least afflicted by stylish ennui. The irony and cynicism of so much of Achtung Baby works when it works, but what makes this album really great is that U2 had the sense to let songs be when they needed to; the album employs tools from outside of their traditional repertoire, but it never uses them as a crutch. What “One” proves so well is that U2 don’t need a crutch because they’re capable of writing beautiful songs with what they’ve always had.
Achtung Baby gets a lot more mileage out of straight-forward pop than you might initially think. Other stand-out tracks, most notable Bono’s “torch song” “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and the triumphant “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World,” are built on the same foundation of anthemic stadium-rock that made U2 superstars in the first place. It’s just that everything surrounding Achtung Baby points in the other direction: check the hip pop-art album cover, the cheeky naked snapshots buried in the liner notes, Bono’s new all-leather wardrobe and slicked back hair. Check, most egregiously, Achtung’s world tour, a meta-spectacle more about TV simulacra and rock-star caricatures than actual music. Call it a product of the early nineties: this cynical, self- and world-aware posturing was everywhere. And U2 were kind of the OK Soda of alt-culture defiance, noting the irony in a mass-marketed product criticising mass-marketed products while nevertheless selling their mass-marketed concert tickets and mass-marketed CDs and…well, you know how the ’90s ended and how lame that all looks in retrospect. The point is that despite all that, or maybe in spite of it, U2 still wrote great music, still wrote a near-perfect album with perfectly unironic and unhip songs. “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways” represent the height of Achtung’s aesthetic experimentation and embodiment of cool, but even they work on a earnestly satisfying level: Bono might have wanted you to dig the swagger of its beat, but it’s the Edge’s ethereal chorus that really shines—that’s just another example of U2 making great pop unintentionally, and it’s the perfect reminder of the greatness of the stuff that makes Achtung Baby and U2 in general endure.