Counterbalance No. 82: U2's 'Achtung Baby'

Did U2’s 1991 blockbuster disappoint you? Or leave a bad taste in your mouth? Either way, it’s still the 82nd Most Acclaimed Album of All Time. Counterbalance has a listen.


Achtung Baby

US Release: 1991-11-19
UK Release: 1991-10-01
Label: Island

Mendelsohn: And we're back to U2, this time it’s with Achtung Baby. The last time we talked about Dublin's favorite sons, we found them on the musical warpath as foot soldiers for earnest rock, making the Grand Statement with 1987's The Joshua Tree. Fast forward four years, and we are looking at a considerably different band. Well, musically, anyway. Bono and the Edge are still there along with the other two, whose names I never can remember. Is it Adam and Bill? Don't tell me, I won't commit it to memory. I don't care enough, which also sums up the way I feel about U2. But you know that; we've been here before.

The thing that I find the most troubling about Achtung Baby is how dated is sounds to me. Right off the bat, in "Zoo Station", with the Edge's distorted guitar-riffs, swirling effects, and that nearly machine-like drum beat, it just screams early ’90s. But then, it may have been U2 that gave birth to the sound of the early ’90s, so I can't really hold that against them, can I?

After traipsing through this disc, I keep coming back one question. We are now to the point on the Great List where we are seeing multiple entries from the same artists. Some of these entries show off a greater range in material than others. I think, listening to both The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby, you might be able to argue that U2 may have gone through the greatest transformation. Klinger, you like U2, maybe you can help me out. Is Achtung Baby on the Great List on the merit of its material alone, or is it here because the critics dig it when a band can effectively reinvent themselves?

Klinger: It's funny, but I've always thought of "grunge" as the sound of the early '90s until just now. Now that you mention it, there was a lot more out there that sounded like this than sounded like Nirvana—at least in the mainstream (cue arguments in the comments section). I was also all set to take issue with your characterization of me as someone who likes U2. That's a comment that immediately got my back up, as if you had just said that I like Nike or Microsoft. But then I thought back over the last week and it dawned on me how much I got into Achtung Baby, a disc that I paid virtually no attention to in 1991. Of course, I'd heard most of the songs here and there—I am a sentient human being, after all—but I never sat down and purposefully listened to album.

Now that I've done so, I'm ready to say that if nothing else, U2 has been one of the most reliable singles acts of the last 30 years. The tracks on here that I was already quite familiar with ("Mysterious Ways", "Even Better Than the Real Thing") still ring as true as anything we're looking for in quality pop music.

So to answer your question, Mendelsohn, I think it’s both factors that put Achtung Baby here in the top 100. U2 was purt-near the biggest band in the world at this point, and I think they knew that their rootsy Rattle and Hum shtick was getting on people's nerves. And somehow, this reinvention came across far more seamlessly than it had any right to be. By the end of the decade they'd end up working this angle a little too hard (Pop), but in this moment they were just about spot-on.

Mendelsohn: I didn't mean to imply that you were some corporate shill, blindly consuming whatever comes down the pike. I simply meant that you had previously professed a liking for some of their material. Sure, that material had been released five years previously, and yes, U2 went from being a well-respected rock act to the biggest band in the world in that short span . . . I guess I'm trying to apologize? It is edifying to know that you had no qualms ignoring a band you used to listen to because they got too big, thereby making them less cool. That's what I would have done. A band is cool so long as only you and a couple other people like them. Some enterprising young arbiters of taste need to start issuing coolness expiration dates so I don't have to think about it so hard.

Klinger: Oh, I didn't stop listening to them because they got too popular. I just wasn't dating anyone who listened to it all the time, like I was when The Joshua Tree came out. Just want to make myself clear.

Mendelsohn: My bad. Anyway. U2's transformation reminds me a little of Apple's rise to dominance. Once they started rolling, both entities were considered cool and liked by cool people. Then both entities got extremely popular and were liked by everyone and their grandmothers. One minute U2 is enjoying critical acclaim with The Joshua Tree and on their way to global domination, and the next minute everyone is using an iPad to play Angry Birds. It's hard to argue with that kind of success. And it's just as tough not to admire the product. U2 made an album full of number one singles and it dominated the charts. Apple keeps churning out products that people can't live without. But at the same time, I feel like there something just a little disingenuous. Anytime anything becomes that popular, I always catch myself asking, "What’s the catch?"

Klinger: There's no catch, really. It's just that U2, like Apple, put together a solid product that appeals to people's sense of design (sonic design, in U2's case). And Achtung Baby is by and large a smart album with a surprising amount of groove for a bunch of guys who weren't necessarily known for that sort of thing.

Granted, the album is not without its weaknesses. Bono's lyrics can be problematic—that "fish without a bicycle" line had been appearing on bumper stickers for about a decade before he appropriated it for "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World", and the less said about the "don't let the bastards grind you down" cliché in "Acrobat", the better. But when he's on his lyrical game, like he is in "One", he more than justifies his reputation.

Mendelsohn: I've never gone looking for words of wisdom in anything Bono says. In fact, I've spent most of the past two decades trying to ignore everything that comes out of his mouth. He has good intentions and I dig that, but it seemed like he talked non-stop from about 1990 to 2003. I think it's telling that you picked out "One" as the song that best exemplifies Bono's lyrical bent. It's that song that seems to be at the core of this record, and if the story is to be believed, it's the song that saved U2 from disbanding after a frustrating and fruitless start to the recording sessions for Achtung Baby. Just think, if they had never recorded "One", U2 might never have made it into the 1990s. But then, the landscape of modern rock would have sorely missed the pop inflections that U2 perfected (and then proceeded to blow completely out of proportion later in the decade).

I might complain about this record and I definitely will complain should we ever get to Pop (which will be never), but I still love that opening riff to "Mysterious Ways".

Klinger: Copy that. To me, “Mysterious Ways” is the sound of U2 schooling those young upstarts that were taking things in a more groove-based direction—out-Stone Rosesing the Stone Roses, if you will. But you're right that "One" is the centerpiece of this album, and in many ways it's a pivot point in the band's career. The comparison I keep coming back to in my head is R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts", released the next year on that band's critical masterwork Automatic for the People. Both songs sound like conscious attempts to take a personal statement and construct something larger from it. (Both songs also became Exhibit A in the case that both bands' lead singers were po-faced blowhards, but talking about that sounds more like your job.)

But "One" also cements Achtung Baby as the album that places U2 firmly in the pantheon, and that's largely due to the fact that they were able to change up their game at the height of their popularity without losing too much of the thread. Putting aside your own personal distaste for the group and the album, can you think of many other groups to do that?

Mendelsohn: No, I can't. Even if I sat down to make a list, I don't think I would need more than one hand. What U2 did is incredible and I saying that with the utmost respect. Despite my repeated and irrational statements of distaste for Bono, the Edge, and those other two dudes, U2, as a band, has proven their merit on the Great List and with Achtung Baby, they easily secured their place in the pantheon of rock and roll.

Klinger: Larry, Mendelsohn. His name is Larry.

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