Ready For The Laughing Gas – Achtung Baby (1991)

The opening bars of “Zoo Station” are among the most jarring in U2’s history. Even after the reinventions of Achtung Baby have been largely backpedaled, that ugly industrial grind still feels bizarre, discomforting, and just a little exhilarating. This was of course intentional. After the bloated Americana of Rattle And Hum, the band rightly sensed that a new approach was necessary. Achtung Baby represented a shift unlike anything else U2 had done to that point, or anything they would do again. In doing so they created a brilliant piece of rock music, proudly standing beside War and The Joshua Tree as masterpieces of not only their own discography but the genre.

It was obvious from Rattle And Hum that things had to change, but only years later is it clear just what a strain it was on the band. Achtung Baby didn’t just represent a change in the band’s sound, but in the very chemistry of how the band created music. The album was recorded partially in Berlin just as the wall came down, in Hansa Studios where David Bowie had recorded his classic album Heroes. By all accounts these sessions were extremely difficult. Working once again with Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, the band struggled to find a voice that would remain relevant to what they wanted to do. It was obvious that the four members were being pulled in different directions. The Edge in particular was becoming enamored with club music. At least some of the members were increasingly interested in the work of The Stone Roses and similar bands. It’s clear that Larry and Adam both were troubled by the desire to find a “sound” rather than just looking for good songs.

The general consensus within the band is that the turning point came when they were able to nail down Achtung Baby‘s greatest song, “One.” It’s a case of everything in a song coming together to form something perfect and remarkable. The lyric reflected something that was both personal to the band, and universal to the listener. Has there ever been a better U2 line than “We’re one, but we’re not the same”? It was not just an acknowledgement of the challenges the band was facing, but indeed the challenges of living with other people. There is pain and accusation in those words, but also an acknowledgement that in the face of such differences “we get to carry each other.” The melody was lovely and soaring without ever feeling forced, and it contains all of the band performing at their absolute best. It’s a song rich in emotion and loaded in contradiction.

It’s obvious to me that the band felt the same way, because Achtung Baby is an intensely contradictory album. It’s the first U2 album that actually felt kind of fun, but it’s also their darkest work. It focuses on venality and lust, while expressing regret and dissatisfaction with earthly pleasures. It recklessly seeks out the temporal and fleeting, even while acknowledging how empty such pursuits are. Bono’s best work as a lyricist is on display, and indeed he has never attained anything so nuanced since this album. It’s always a little hard to nail down precisely where the narrator of the songs stands. However this isn’t true in a wishy-washy vague way. Rather, I have seen new facets of every song as I’ve listened to every track over and over again. It’s an album that is able to grow with the listener, which is a mark of great work.

Much has been made about the sonic changes in Achtung Baby, and they are considerable. There is a far greater emphasis on rhythm than ever before, giving the music a sensual feeling that swirls around the listener. The words focus on personal pain to an unprecedented level, rather than focusing on political issues. But the secret weapon of Achtung Baby is not how much it reinvents. It lies in how well U2 was able to appropriate those sounds into their own. This is especially clear after the forced blues in Rattle And Hum, which sometimes swallowed up the band in their influences. Here their voice is far clearer, while still sounding fresh and unique. Perhaps this is because the more European influences of Achtung Baby chart a lot closer to U2’s sound than American roots music ever did. Regardless, the results are astounding.

More than a reinvention, Achtung Baby set the tone for U2’s output for the next several years, and not just their music. Remarkably, this marks the first time the band had ever used color photography on their album artwork, The following tour, Zoo TV, took the song “Even Better Than The Real Thing” as its main inspiration, crafting a ridiculous mass media experience that embraced artifice and excess to striking effect. Bono took on several personas throughout the tour, all of them somehow more ridiculous than his actual persona. The band even dressed in drag for one of the videos released for “One.” For the first time U2 had a playful tone to what it did, embracing the ridiculous aspects of rock music for what they were.

With some hindsight, I wonder if the struggle the band had in the studio was the beginning of what would become an unfortunate tendency. While the next album would come together very quickly, there would be at least a three-year wait between every subsequent album, more often stretching to four or five years as the band hammered away endlessly at songs until they got them just the way they liked. While the next twenty years would indeed have some high points, they have never made anything as good as Achtung Baby in that time. Maybe that’s because Achtung Baby is a situation where everything happened just right to produce something amazing. More than any U2 album it is tied to a particular time and place, not only in the band’s career but in history in general. It’s strongly hardwired to a post-Cold War environment, when a specific sound was in vogue. But rather than feeling aged, it transcends its own origins into something timeless.

Into The Heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album.

Like any reasonable person, Achtung Baby was among the first U2 albums I purchased when I was getting into the band. At that point in my life I’m not sure I was prepared for how much darker the album was. There was a time when I definitely preferred the brighter sounds of their post-2000 output. But as I get older, Achtung Baby feels more like the band’s definitive statement. Its contradictions and darker moments are more identifiable to me now than they were when I was in college, after I had experienced some genuine heartbreak and doubt in my own life. Just a few weeks ago, I spoke about how The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby were in a constant two-horse race for my favorite U2 album. I still maintain that The Joshua Tree is the definitive U2 album, but Achtung Baby is the one that resonates with me personally.

From The Sky Down
In which Nate ranks all of U2’s albums in order of his favorites.

1. Achtung Baby
2. The Joshua Tree
3. War
4. The Unforgettable Fire
5. Boy
6. Under A Blood Red Sky
7. Rattle And Hum
8. October

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