U2 – Achtung Baby

Ok so here’s the thing. I love U2, adore them, and can’t wait for their new album to come out (well ok I can wait long enough to not download a leak, since we know the risks involved with THAT). On the other hand, I am painfully aware of the many ways that U2 make it very hard to love them in public.

For one, you’ve got the guys themselves. The lead singer and lead guitarist are called “Bono Vox” (meaning “Great Voice”, shortened popularly to “Bono”) and “The Edge” (meaning, “What the crap”), respectively. They’ve got enough flair and pompousness to their sound and appearance to fill one of those gigantic stadiums they’re always filling, and I am pretty sure knowing the lyrics to any one of their songs automatically makes you gay. Despite this, I love the band. I quite enjoyed their “early” sound which was big and epic and propelled them to the top of the mainstream music world more than once, but Achtung Baby is where I really start digging their sound in a way that I dig the sound of some of my proper favorite bands (ones I am NOT ashamed to admit liking):

According to Wikipedia, only on the US LP cover is there an image of Adam Clayton, the bassist, completely naked. Thanks for that, U2 and Wikipedia

Achtung Baby marks a sharp left turn from U2’s established world-saving sound. I have a very deep-seated respect for any band that can establish themselves AND make it through the 1980’s without having that decade’s sound permanently emblazoned upon them through the 90’s and today. Then again, U2’s sound was always an exception to the dark ages of the 80’s so victory all around and all that.

For one, the band introduced an electronic-influenced sound into the mix, courtesy of The Edge’s relentless progressive idea about how guitar should be noisy, and Coldplay-saving producer Brian Eno. The influence can be heard right out of the gate, with the “really great out of the gate” song “Zoo Station“. There’s a chinky sound made by a guitar AND a powerful distorted chord also made by a guitar, and as the song progresses you will invariably lose count of how many guitars are going on at the same time. The drums are probably the most “electronic” sounding thing, though, and really they would continue to for a few albums afterward.

The second song is fairly similar to the first, and has a fun video to go along with it. “Even Better Than The Real Thing” is a song I know I’d heard before being introduced to this album and U2 in general, and I could swear this song has been used to advertise a diet soda at some point. If it hasn’t, it surely should have been.

It’s unusual for my favorite song on an album to be located so near the beginning, but it’s certainly true for Achtung Baby. I doubt there’s a voice of dissent to the band U2 that wouldn’t admit that “One” is the best song they’ve written, and a really great song in the grand scheme of songs. The lyrics are beautiful and challenging without really being about anything specific, the melody is to die for, and the bridge onward is practically a spiritual in its earnesty and power. The song was so good that, at least according to Wikipedia, it kept the band from breaking up when they were going through a tough time when critics decided their latest album was less than stellar. IN FACT, the song is so good that it’s the only song that has been covered by Johnny Cash that I felt wasn’t as good as the original. I think that says about enough about how good this song is.

By the way, in the spirit of not taking U2 too seriously, I was really disappointed to hear that not only did the whore of Babylon Mary J. Blige record an abysmal cover of the song, but she had U2’s help in doing it. Shame on you, U2. Then again, this is during their How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb time, which I hope will have ended with their new album. I really hate Mary J. Blige, by the way, and I need no other reason than her cover of “One”.

On to nicer things, one of my other favorite songs on the album is “Until The End Of The World” which apparently is a song about Judas Iscariot and Jesus Christ, but I always picture it as being about other things. Either way, it features some great minor-chord things and some guitar things and it’s just great. I have a lot of pleasant memories about it that kind of keep me from going into detail about why it’s great, so sorry, no refunds.

Then we move on to “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” which is a song I used to hate and here’s why. Back when I first got this album, recorded onto a cassette tape by my girlfriend at the time who is responsible for me ever hearing U2, I played it only in my car, which had no working speakers on the right side. The way this song is mixed is that there’s a lot of guitar noise that is either distortion piled on top of a lot of effects, or else The Edge just opens the song up by kicking his amp a few times. In the right channel are a pair of cellos (or one cello playing chords) that plays the actual chords to the song until the guitar straightens up and flies right. Since I couldn’t hear anything from the right channel, I used to hate the song because it didn’t sound like anything but noise and Bono singing along to some melody in his head. Now that I have headphones and a proper copy of the album, I have not had this complaint and the song’s pretty good.

Since U2 is like the ultimate Pop band, they couldn’t go without a simple hook-based song, but in the spirit of shaking things up, the hook-song is 8 minutes long and very poetic. Hence, “So Cruel“, a song that takes 3 piano notes and constructs a wonderful pop song out of it. The song is also a reminder that, if you ever want to hear how many words rhyme with “desire” and “fire”, you should look no further than Bono’s songwriting.

Probably the first instance (since it’s the first single) of U2 shocking people who care with their “new” 90’s sound is the song “The Fly“. This song is great, though I wasn’t so warm to it at first, and it introduces yet ANOTHER reason to dislike U2. Bono apparently does “characters” which are just manifestations of his stereotypical behavior. One of these is called “The Fly” and it’s a rock star who wears all leather and wears horrible sunglasses and prances around like a sex-crazed maniac. Yeah, that’s a “character”, “played” by Bono.

Oh how I love “Mysterious Ways“. From its early-90’s-tastic colorful music video to the wonderful bridge to the catchy chorus. All around a t’riffic song.

The next song, “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World” seems like a shorter sequel to “So Cruel”, as it’s got the same “built around a single hook” sort of construction. It’s got lyrics that I am ambivalent about at best, it has some pretty ridiculous lines, in fact I like to make fun of the chorus “I’m gonna run to you, run to you, run to you, woman be still”, since that’s repeated so many times, as being about a woman who is much faster than Bono on her feet. I don’t know, read my mind and tell me it’s not funny. Also the song uses the ol’ feminist line “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” which kind of makes me slap my head in the general direction of U2. I’m telling you, this band makes it very hard to admit I like them.

Until, at least, one gets to a song like “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)“. This is supposedly one of the first songs written for the album, and in fact “One” came from an attempt to write a decent bridge to this song. It’s just an amazing song, kind of a throwback to the “world-saving” sound of early U2 but still retaining their newer sound. The vocals are nothing to sneeze at, either. Another good note is that this song prevents Late Album Slowdown like nobody’s business, because you could start Achtung Baby with this song and nobody would mind.

As I mentioned before, I only got to hear this album in copied cassette tape form for a long time, and part of that experience was entirely missing out on the last two songs, “Acrobat” and “Love Is Blindness“. See, the entire album wouldn’t fit on one side, so it was continued on the other, but I, for some reason, thought “Ultraviolet” was the final song, so I never bothered to flip it. It’s too bad, really, because “Acrobat” is a fantastic song which contains the word “bastards” which I always love to hear in music for some reason, and “Love Is Blindness” has that wonderful pulsating bass-line that drives the ambiance of the song into a dark place indeed. I have since remedied the situation, though, and a happy ending was had for all.

So that’s Achtung Baby. It’s not my “favorite” U2 album, but it’s definitely the one that got me into the band, and the elements introduced in this album are elements that carried over enough into their later releases enough to where I still consider myself a fan. Just don’t tell anybody, ok?

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2 Responses

  1. Another of my favourite album. I have listened to mysterious ways a hundred times and I still find it… mysterious!

  2. U2 has a lot of good songs, but this is the only album of theirs I enjoy listening to start to finish. I seem to recall a similar experience with the cellos in Wild Horses too. Until the End of the World is the best.

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