U2 bashing is the low-hanging fruit of music criticism. Over 40 years removed from their emergence, millennials best know the aging rockers as the band that invaded their iTunes without permission. The band might be next to irrelevant to Generation Z. And yet here we stand at the 30th anniversary of one of their biggest and best albums. To commemorate the anniversary of a U2 album outside the confines of their hardcore fandom might invite tsk-tsking or test the indulgence of those influenced by Nick Hornby’s character, Rob in High Fidelity, who lumped the band into the “five groups that would be shot come the musical revolution.”
On 18 November 1991, U2 released their seventh studio album, Achtung Baby, and performed what can be called, with only a tad bit of exaggeration, a phoenix-like return to rock god status. That seems an audacious statement to make about a band a mere four years removed from the release of The Joshua Tree, an album consistently listed as an all-time classic and one that made them the biggest band in the world at the time. I was by this point a convert to the Church of U2, a serious fan. And I refused to listen to Achtung Baby for several years.
I saw U2 live for the first time in my early 20s while they were in their mid-20s. Before the advent of dramatic video and light shows that would become the staple of arena and stadium rock concerts, the overly earnest band from Dublin moved crowds on the sheer power of focused righteous indignation that bordered on hubris. As a suburban young adult inflamed by the state of the world but apprehensive about public action, the band was my vicarious vanguard.
The world-changing earnest righteousness of their early sound reaches its culmination in 1983’s War, perhaps the purest distillation of post-punk U2 with its apocalyptic imagery and odes to hope and redemption driven by a military cadence and the Edge’s soaring guitar. The addition of Brian Eno in 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire brought atmospherics to the band’s bravado untapped before his involvement. On 13 July 1985, during the band’s Live Aid set at London’s Wembley Stadium, Bono went off script and stage in a 12-minute rendering of “Bad” that introduced scores of viewers to the sheer power of U2’s live performances.
The Joshua Tree bloomed in this fertile soil—a classic, once in a career album that propelled the band from an up-and-coming contender to rock juggernaut. They had combined their burning passion for meaning, for justice, for—dare we say it—righteousness with a maturing sound that could fill arenas while maintaining the feel of a love feast.
It was in the follow-up, Rattle and Hum, that chinks began to emerge in their armor. The double album appeared as an unresolved argument between releasing a live album from the American tour or an EP featuring the band’s dalliance with American roots and blues. Some saw it as an arrogantly indulgent attempt to introduce an American audience to their musical legacy. As the 1980s came to a close, U2 was experiencing a crisis of identity.
In 1990, the band took the last commercial flight into a divided Berlin shortly before the wall came down and reunification began. With a team including Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite, and Flood, U2 thought a recording residency at Berlin’s Hansa Studios might provide the jolt to start over again. Hansa was where producer Eno had made magic in the 1970s with David Bowie, resulting in the “Berlin Trilogy” of albums. Much of the mythos about their 1991 release has become mundane mantras. “The sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.”
“We spent the ’80s throwing rocks at everyone else,” Bono opines in the documentary From the Sky Down that accompanied the 20th anniversary of the 1991 album. “Now we were throwing rocks at ourselves.” (It might be worth considering that not all rocks targeted the band as the title “Achtung Baby” might be read as a subversive wink at Bowie’s “Thin White Duke” persona from the Berlin sessions and the dalliance with fascist imagery.)
It is not that myth-making is inappropriate. After all, what is rock music if not an exercise in myth-making? One can drill down into questions of the minutiae as to how consequential the details around the recording were. There were some breakthroughs in Berlin, but most of the album was recorded and formed back in Ireland. What is interesting to me now is what I resisted so vigorously then—the radical departure from image and sound they had spent a decade constructing.
A band that broke through on the strength of soaring stadium rock hymns were now looking at reworking their sound with heavy influences from EDM and industrial music. They were familiar with the “Madchester” movement and wanted to create music suitable for dance clubs. Such a move was not unprecedented as bands like the Rolling Stones had given the nod to the disco beat on Some Girls, but no listener of that album would find the sound to be unrecognizable to what had preceded it.
But the opening sounds of “Zoo Station”, the first track off Achtung Baby, are nothing short of jarring. A faint beat is tapped out with sounds like a wrench on a pipe before the left channel assaults you with industrialized guitar licks answered by fuzzed-out percussion from the right channel. By the time Bono’s vocals—altered to mimic singing through a bullhorn—proclaim, “I’m ready to let go of the steering wheel”, you know they already have.
It is a stunning opening that immediately throws the gauntlet down and clears the slate. The pace barely slows as the Edge careens into “Even Better Than the Real Thing” while we eavesdrop on an attempted seduction in Bono’s guttural plea for “one more chance to satisfy”. The realization that we are the target sets in as he croons, desperately pleading to the reluctant fan.
In From the Sky Down, Bono and the Edge indicate the initial reluctance of bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. to their plans for sonic disruption. Yet, the brilliance of this album lies in its bass and drum-driven rhythm. “Until the End of the World” reveals Clayton and Mullen’s importance on this album. They lay down a rhythmic cable connecting one end of the song to the other, a grounding groove around which the Edge’s intense guitar effects and Bono’s vocals swirl in an ecstatic dance.
Tonally the themes of Achtung Baby are less grand and bombastic than what preceded them. The prophets storming the cloud-shrouded mountain are set aside for a set of dirty glam rockers appealing to our baser instincts. The album is iconoclastic, and the sights set on knocking down the icons of Anton Corbijn’s black and white cover photos on The Joshua Tree. The band self-consciously try on personas, moving in and out of artifice and performance. We are introduced to “The Fly”, a send-up of the rock star blinded by his sense of brilliance, assuming every aphorism is wisdom. There is Judas in the garden bitterly emoting betrayal at Jesus’ hands in a song that dabbles in heartbreak and homoerotic imagery.
The brilliance of this move lies in the hint that they might have been embodying personas all along. It is the shock that comes with realizing that when Bono as the Fly is saying, “this both is and is not me.” he is also including the jackboot-clad, white flag-waving warrior decrying violence on a cold, rainy Red Rocks stage. We are caught in the dance between image and insecurity and the ambiguity of light and darkness within us all. We are all the “Acrobat”, twisting ourselves into contortions of compromise and conviction. “If you close your eyes, you can see the enemy.” The closing song brings this home by swinging at rock’s guiding myth. Love may be all we need, but it is blindness.
The premier stadium anthem that emerges from this album is “One”. A fixture of their live shows to this day, the song feels like a soaring hymn to unity and our better angels, but on close listen is a clear-eyed reflection on our perpetual disappointment and betrayal of one another and ourselves. But, we get to carry each other in our brokenness and despair. The transgressive nature of this entire album is part of what makes it so important. By embracing cynical irony and ambiguity, the band spent the ’90s diving deeper into experimentation and reflecting on the whole human experience that retroactively gave more depth and humanity to their early prophetic rage. Like the albums before it, Achtung Baby swung for the fences but in the mode of a power hitter who first completely broke down their swing and learned to bat again.
So, what is the importance of marking the 30th anniversary of this album? While a stellar rock album, it did not dramatically change the trajectory of music that followed it, opening up new vistas of sound or creating genres. In this sense, it is no Pet Sounds, Marquee Moon, or its chronological contemporary, Nevermind. It isn’t a profound social statement capturing the zeitgeist of the times like What’s Going On? or London Calling. Instead, Achtung Baby stands as a timestamp of a band at the height of their powers and popularity, daring to risk it all and reboot. And, if for no other reason, it is worth celebrating.
In a recent discussion between writers Tressie McMillan Cottom and Kiese Laymon, it was emphasized that one could not make life or art if you are scared to miss. I would argue that for many of us, this is much easier to nod knowing assent to rather than pick up as the guiding force of daily actions. Entropy sets in, and we look for something stable, even as we ignore its inevitable fragility.
U2 are often punished for trying too hard, seeking chart acceptance, or grasping for one last trip around the sun. Why can’t they just own their lack of relevance and embrace being a legacy act? It is worth pondering whether we punish them for the very things we often seek for ourselves on a smaller scale. After all, what is social media, other than a medium to create a “new” version of ourselves, a way to reach out beyond the confines imposed on us either externally or internally? The possibilities of constructing a projected image ironically lead us to withhold our vulnerability. Could it be that a fear of exposure and uncertainty fuels our need to lash out at a band for not staying in their lane?
In retrospect, such insecurity probably fueled my resistance to turn to this album for several years. I preferred to keep the band preserved in the amber of their heart-on-their-sleeve earnestness and an audacious faith in the power of “three chords and truth” to topple all that ails us. My resistance was rooted more in a refusal to deal with my ambiguity and compromises, choosing to see myself in my youthful hubris to singlehandedly change the world even as I consented to the comforts of keeping one’s head down. The line in “God Part II” from Rattle and Hum was already providing the diagnosis as I chose to think it only applied to others, “You glorify the past when the future drys up.”
It is perhaps fitting that Pop, the third installment of the band’s experimental 1990s output, eventually opened the door for me to learn to love Achtung Baby. That album’s send-up of artifice and superficiality mixed with an unflinching look at despair in the loss of meaning spoke to my recognition of the fissures in my own constructed edifice. While working for an extended period away from home, I picked up Pop from a thrift store and listened to it repeatedly, primarily out of necessity more than anything else. The band’s send-up of the rockstar while cosplaying the most extreme, glam version of it opened a door for me. I could now appreciate the cynical irony in the title Achtung Baby amidst the post-Cold War world and hear anew the bold brilliance of a band unafraid to risk it all and miss. And that sentiment alone is worth revisiting at least every decade or so.