All great bands must have an album that changes all the rules, destroys all expectations, and challenges their fans to open their minds to something new and unexpected. Achtung Baby was exactly that for U2, marking a dramatic shift from the sound they perfected on 1987’s The Joshua Tree. While U2 could have kept cranking out the same sound, and selling tens of millions of albums in the process, they looked to the changes in Europe and to the changes in their own lives and decided to take a dramatically different path for the next full studio album (Worth noting the 1988’s Rattle & Hum had some studio tracks on it, some of which were quite good. But the disk was weighed down by the live tracks.).
It was apparent this was a very different album from its opening notes. “Zoo Station” announced itself with Edge attacking his guitar, processing the results until they sounded like a giant, angry bee. Larry Mullen’s drums were also processed, creating an industrial sound (the sound of Europe rebuilding itself?). Bono’s voice was also highly processed, and when all these elements were layered over Adam Clayton’s huge bass, they sounded nothing like the same band they had been just four years earlier.
Even today, when I listen to the album, I’m struck by the feelings of a new Europe and new era that the album conveys. That industrial, electronic sound wasn’t just a band exploring its own possibilities, but also a blueprint for what was possible in the post-Cold War era. At first, it was ominous. But, after that initial worry, it was a time of immense opportunity and excitement. Listening to “Mysterious Ways,” or “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)“ still makes me think of those heady days after the Berlin Wall had come down, Communism had retreated, and anything seemed possible.
Every great album must have a great song. Achtung Baby is loaded with great songs, but one stands above all others. Bad pun, because “One” is that track. It is the emotional center of the album, despite sounding like a natural progression from The Joshua Tree’s sound. Despite those sonic similarities, “One” does mark a significant change in U2’s approach to music. In the past, they had focused on matters of politics and war to make their strongest statements. With “One,” however, they began looking at the dark elements of personal relationships. The song is so good that even with a few typical Bono clunker lyrics, they pull it off (“Did I ask too much? More than a lot?” I’m still trying to figure out why they let him get away with that.). It’s a powerful song that can be applied to many situations, witness how the band used it as their way of honoring the victims of the 9/11 attacks in their late 2001 concerts.
One of the marks of a great album is how it becomes timeless. When I was listening to it over the past week, I still found every song to be great, and the overall impact of the album to be strong. While it was very much about a moment in time, the awakening of Europe in the early 90s, it manages to sound timeless, and more importantly, still fresh even 16 years later.
As the history of 1990s rock is written, another album from late 1991, Nirvana’s Nevermind, tends to get most of the attention. I would argue, though, that Achtung Baby was equally important to the decade’s sound. Nevermind may have opened the door to the emergence of the college rock movement into the mainstream, but Achtung Baby did a better job of predicting where we would end up. For all of its optimism, there is a significant undercurrent of uncertainty and opportunity for darkness to prevail. I’ll talk more about the comparison in a few weeks, but I think Achtung Baby posed many of the questions that Radiohead’s OK Computer answered six years later.
Achtung Baby is a fantastic album. It is so good, it forces me to forgive Bono of his hubristic sins each time he gets on my nerves. When you create a piece of art this exceptional, you earn a lifetime pass for certain behaviors. It is worth mentioning, though, that Achtung Baby’s huge success is what really unleashed Bono on the world. It turned him into a global force for change, but also made his mug ubiquitous. Art, like life, is full of trade offs.
Key Tracks (Highest Billboard Top 100 Chart Position Noted): “The Fly,” #61. “Mysterious ways,” #9. “One,” #10. “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” #32. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your White Horses,” #35.