Even better than the real thing?
Right on the cusp between the end of an old age and the start of a new, the biggest band in the world reinvented itself with a record that perfectly captured the mixture of euphoria, hopefulness, and uncertainty fomented by the end of the Cold War. As the Iron Curtain was pried open and nations were either reunified or blasted apart at the heady dawn of the 1990s, Irish superstar band U2 rethought its entire approach for the daring 1991 LP Achtung Baby, an album that saw the group undergoing a drastic stylistic and image overhaul—one it managed to pull it off without a hitch, as five hit singles, several million copies sold, and scores of effusive critical kudos later attest.
The outstanding Achtung Baby—a creation that sees a decade-old post-punk band ditch its rootsy late ‘80s Americana obsession to submerse itself in a Technicolor European futurism—is the U2 record to offer people who typically hate U2. It’s the group’s one truly faultless record, a flat-out masterpiece with not a single weak track, and one of the utmost essential albums from a year that produced epochal LPs by the truckload. Understandably (and inevitably, given the music industry’s search for any means of generating revenue from physical media in a time of ever-decreasing album sales and casual Internet piracy), this year Achtung Baby receives an all-out reissue program to celebrate its 20th birthday, complete with the requisite remastering job, which is frankly indiscernible without a side-by-side comparison, and a range of price points on offer from a straightforward single-disc spit-‘n-shine to the wallet-destroying Uber Set. If you have the slightest interest in U2 yet never got around to obtaining this full-length, there’s no question—pick up the two-disc Deluxe Edition immediately. For those already acquainted with Achtung Baby, the enticement level of the extras offered can waiver in certainty, depending on how deep your pockets are and how willing you are to pay for material you may already own.
Following its ascendancy to the role of “biggest band in the world” due to 1987’s Grammy Award-winning blockbuster The Joshua Tree, and the backlash that accompanied the overwrought pomposity of the Rattle and Hum film and soundtrack, it turned out U2 hadn’t found what it was looking for after all, instead finding itself adrift as the ‘90s rolled around. The exhausted group retreated from the limelight, with frontman Bono telling a New Year’s Eve crowd as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, “We have to go away and just dream it all up again.” Squirreled away in an East Berlin studio with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois plus engineer Flood right as German reunification erased the former Cold War outpost from the political maps overnight, the band struggled as it attempted to do just that. The quartet took stock of itself and astutely came to the same conclusion that detractors had held about it for years: that being so wrapped up in politically-conscious grand-standing and po-faced righteous fire led to its collective head becoming firmly ensconced up its own arse.
U2’s self-conscious mission statement for Achtung Baby was that it would make an intentionally uncharacteristic record. Shedding pious sincerity for detached irony, Bono and guitarist the Edge also took the step of pushing for the group to absorb thrilling contemporary innovations in dance and electronic music as a way forward, something which sat uncomfortably with bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.—the latter of whom understandably bristled at the Edge’s insistence that he accompany already-composed drum machine tracks—nearly tearing the band apart during the recording sessions. Gone were the gravely serious post-Live Aid polemics, the chastely strident rhythms, and the Edge’s trademark crystalline guitar textures. In their place, U2 embraced dance grooves, jarring clashes of dissonance, and a previously verboten sensuous atmosphere. Suiting the new U2, Bono figuratively let his hair down (though literally slicking it back) and crafted a lyrical persona of a devout man backsliding into sin (one that would eventually congeal into three distinct stage guises—the Fly, the Mirror Ball Man, and Mister MacPhisto), crooning conflicted lyrics about God, faith, and love that spoke truth even through outright lies. The exemplar of the new U2 was the lead single “The Fly”, where over a dance beat cribbed from the Madchester movement and the Edge’s zooming guitars Bono cast himself as know-it-all barfly turned leering rock star caricature, who was phoning from Hell to let everyone know he liked it there. Rousing rock anthemics, it was not.
Even today, “The Fly” is a bit of a shock because it’s so thoroughly un-U2: ominous, flippant, and startlingly unrockist. It had to be in order to herald the band’s new incarnation without reservation. However, listeners had little to fear from the rest of the album that song announced the arrival of, as U2 did not skimp on catchy hooks and stirring choruses at the expense of experimentation. On Achtung Baby, U2 adeptly forges a convincing dance/rock synthesis, with chief credit going to the rhythm section. Considering Clayton and Mullen were staunchly against blasting apart the standard U2 operating model, the pair acquits themselves excellently in crafting funky R&B-informed rhythms that even display a hint of hip-hop in spots. The bottom end could be a delicate lilt as on “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World”, or a sinuous, hip-swaying siren’s song as heard on the mega-hit “Mysterious Ways”. In the six-string realm, the Edge set aside his standard percussive pendulum-strumming for a more varied approach: witness the supple richness of the “One” riff, the crisply clipped groove of “Mysterious Ways”, and the almost psychedelic kaleidoscopic tapestry he weaves for “Even Better than the Real Thing”. Music by a subtler and more stylistically adventurous U2 played to the strengths of longtime producer Brian Eno, an electronic music pioneer since his days with Roxy Music and a master of atmospheric soundscapes, who along with Lanois and Flood tied everything together in a way that made these departures palatable—indeed, inviting—to listeners.
Out front, Bono regularly claims the higher frequencies for himself as he makes a habit of slipping into a falsetto voice once he reaches a higher octave. The effect is helium-light, almost inhuman, and it has since become one of the singer’s favored stylistic tics. Bono’s lyrics are the sole aspect of the album that might warrant any negative marks—the inspired lines wrestle for space with occasionally clunky verses and simplistic rhymes (“A man will rise / A man will fall / From the sheer face of love / Like a fly on the wall”), but the singer often transcends any shortcomings by the sheer conviction of his performance. The most stirring moment of the record may very well be a solitary line from “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, when Bono slips back into his anthemic gesture comfort zone to bellow the words “Come on now, love / Don’t you look back” with all his might for one absolutely heart-stopping display of emotional anguish.
In case you don’t own U2’s best (and best-selling) record, the 20th anniversary commemorative program intends to cater to your needs. The single disc remaster isn’t likely to tempt anyone since you’d be served well enough picking up a new or used copy of the original release, so the standard version is ostensibly the two-disc Deluxe Edition, which couples the LP with contemporaneous singles b-sides and rarities. This second disc—containing fine non-albums tracks like “Salome”, remixes and alternative versions, and a clutch of covers (Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love”, the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black”, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”)—exhibits a lighter and more playful character that provides a fuller picture of the Achtung Baby era because, while certainly a refreshing blast of color and invigoration compared to Rattle and Hum, Achtung Baby was still a predominantly somber affair. However, given the role of levity was properly assumed by the sprawling Zoo TV tour—a garish spectacle of information overload accompanied by numerous on-stage television screens, crank calls to world leaders, and Bono playing his ironic characters to the hilt—undertaken to promote the album, a much more sensible and riveting companion would have been a CD or DVD of previously-unreleased live performances from the period.
To truly get your money’s worth, you need to plunk down a hefty amount for the massive 10-disc (six CDs, four DVDs) “Super Deluxe” box set, or the ludicrously hefty “Uber Set”, which trumps the Super Deluxe package by adding vinyl records to the mix and topping it all off with a replica of Bono’s Fly shades. Differences aside, both sets function as the ultimate encapsulation of the Achtung Baby entity, adding to the Deluxe Edition’s contents by throwing in the Zoo TV: Live from Sydney concert DVD, the new documentary From the Sky Down, two discs of remixes, a prototypical “Kindergarten” version of the LP where the mix is more stripped-down and different takes of Bono’s vocals are used, and even the follow-up album Zooropa (1993), which was recorded during the Zoo TV sojourn and is very much cut from the same cloth as its predecessor. It’s an embarrassment of riches—even the B-sides disc is expanded slightly—that will keep listeners happily immersed in the Achtung Baby experience for days. The natural downside of these all-encompassing offerings is that precious few can afford them on a normal budget. Additionally, the type of ardent fans prone to plop down cash for one of the high-end versions are liable to be irked by being forced to buy unamended material that is already commercially available (Zooropa, the stellar Zoo TV: Live from Sydney), when he or she probably already owns that stuff.
Unless Achtung Baby as a solitary entity is enough to satiate you, all of these remastered releases of the record will leave you wanting for some reason or another. The Deluxe Edition is satisfying enough in of itself, but there’s plenty from the pricier sets to tempt the appetite. It’s up to you to determine how much you want to contribute to keep Bono well-stocked in sunglasses 20 years after he donned his first pair of bug-eyed specs. Regardless, Achtung Baby belongs in your music collection. The album accomplished a feat artists love to undertake but rarely pull off: the public image reinvention and stylistic about-face that is so masterful it silences all the doubters. Even as the 21st century has seen U2 return to stadium-friendly rock postures, there are elements in the group’s music (Bono’s falsetto, the casual flirtation with danceable grooves, the quartet’s continued ability to take itself less than seriously when necessary) that are still derived from those heady days in a Berlin studio. The biggest band in the world wouldn’t hold that title today if it hadn’t taken one hell of a chance at the exact right time with a record that proved more than strong enough to warrant that gamble.
Upon further reflection, an Achtung Baby shorn of any extras should be more than enough to satisfy you, after all—that’s how it’s been served for the past two decades. Everything else is mere garnish on top of a flat-out genius work.
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// Notes from the Road
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