Pardon the use of such a gender specific term, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it: Achtung Baby has balls. In fact, it’s a strong contender for the ballsiest album in the history of modern rock and roll.
How so? Think about it: this was the proper follow-up to The Joshua Tree, an album that elevated U2 to the stratosphere of the popular consciousness, perhaps the biggest band in the world at that point (at the very least, the most critically-acclaimed band with that level of popularity). A radio staple full of easy-listening and accessible hits for the masses, there’s a good chance your mom or dad could have owned a copy of The Joshua Tree; heck, it won Album of the Year at the Grammy Awards, for goodness sake.
Also, U2 were a band who had staked their entire career on their earnestness, their sincerity. They were always photographed in black and white, they walked longingly through the desert and snow alongside their lyrics in the album sleeves. These were “serious” men making “serious” rock and roll, the antidote for the otherwise glossy and superficial decade. This WAS late-1980s U2, a fact driven home almost to the point of parody in 1989’s sorta-album and film Rattle and Hum, which to many critics reeked of a band trying to cement its legacy.
And then came “The Fly.”
Oh, to have been a “fly” on the wall when the record executives at Island first heard that track. Or even better, to have been there when the moms and dads who bought The Joshua Tree turned on the radio to hear the new U2 single. Instead of the Edge’s jangley, clean guitar riffs, they heard a dirty guitar riff propelled along by a bass line to match. They heard guitar solos that were equal parts noise and melody. And they heard Bono speaking most of the song’s lyrics; and when he wasn’t, he was in a falsetto that was so high that canines could probably hear it better than we could.
And it was glorious.
Now, granted, “The Fly” doesn’t quite reach the peaks of Achtung Baby’s best but you’ve got to admire the balls of whomever decided/agreed to choose the album’s most radically-different song as the first single, the harbinger of things to come: a complete reinvention of sound and vision.
Like Bowie 15 years before them, U2 went to Berlin. There, they had begun to work the sounds of techno into their music, while also sprinkling some sonic experimentation over their core melodic sound. They also played around with their image, ironically embracing their stature as the world’s biggest band and reveling in the grit, grime and gloss of rock and roll. And in the process, they made an album that by-rights should never have worked.
But it did. On its own terms, Achtung Baby is merely a fantastic album, in my opinion the best in the band’s catalogue. But in the context of the band’s history, however, it becomes something more than fantastic: it’s radical, it’s improbable, and it’s flat out ballsy. Oh, and brilliant too.
Why U2 succeeded where others – looking at you R.E.M. – have failed is that while they made a conscious effort to industrialize and fuzz up their sound, they didn’t compromise the material to do so. In fact, Achtung Baby is arguably the best collection of pure SONGS that U2 ever assembled. Yes, “One” is a justifiable classic, even if its shine has diminished somewhat by countless covers over the years (Johnny Cash = good, Mary J. Blige WITH U2 = what the hell were you guys thinking?). But outside of the singles lies some of the best, most interesting work the band has ever done, in particular the three stunners that bring the album to its close: “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” “Acrobat,” and “Love is Blindness.” Musically, each of these walks a fine line between chord and chaos, and Bono delivers vocals that are surprising, passionate and revelatory.
Achtung Baby formed the blueprint for the 1990s-present incarnation of U2: Bono as a politically-conscious swaggering rock star, large-scale multimedia-driven tours (the album spawned the Zoo TV tour, one of the most ambitious undertakings this side of the Rolling Stones), and a sound that marries melodics with a touch of madness.
And yet, they have never again succeeded in creating an album as passionate, interesting and flat-out good as Achtung Baby in the 14 years since. With each of the three albums that followed, they seemed to overemphasize to a fault one of the aspects that made Achtung so fantastic: the touches of experimentalism (Z
ooropa), the techno influences (Pop) and the band’s bombastic and ballad-y songwriting (All That You Can’t Leave Behind). Only with 2004’s pretty-decent How to Dismantle An Atomic Bomb did they finally bring all three parts back in balance with each other, making their best album since Achtung Baby – but Atomic Bomb is no Achtung Baby, not by a longshot.
It’s not the heart that’s missing for the band in 2006; U2 needs to find its balls again. Perhaps they should start looking for them by putting Achtung Baby on the record player.
Watch: U2 – “The Fly”