Album of the Week: U2’s Achtung Baby: A Reissue of a Classic

In honor of the twentieth anniversary of the release of their 1991 classic album Achtung Baby, U2 has reissued the album in five formats.  Intended for serious U2 fans, the “Über Deluxe” format contains the Achtung Baby album on CD; the 1993 Zooropa album in its entirety on CD; three additional CDs with B-sides, remixes, and outtakes from Achtung Baby and Zooropa; a “kindergarten” CD with embryonic versions of Achtung Baby’s twelve songs; four DVDs that include a documentary on the making of Achtung Baby, a concert film from the Sydney stop of the Zoo TV tour, music videos, and documentaries; the Achtung Baby album on double-disc vinyl; five 7-inch vinyl singles; and a replica pair of Bono’s “Fly” sunglasses and other memorabilia.  The more casual and less financially endowed U2 fans can settle for the “low end” of the Achtung Baby reissue: a “2-CD Deluxe” edition that has the original album on the first disc and a collection of B-sides and remixes on the second.

The true question for any U2 fan – and, really, music fan – is, does Achtung Baby deserve all of the fanfare that led to this five-format reissue?  After all, U2’s equally popular and critically lauded The Joshua Tree (1987) didn’t receive a similar treatment when it had its twentieth anniversary in 2007.  Does the music on Achtung Baby still hold up in 2012 to the extent that fans will want to follow its making into every nook and cranny, through documentaries, concert films, remixes, B-sides, outtakes, and by actually donning a pair of Bono’s shades?

I have to provide some background on the musical historical context in which U2 released Achtung Baby before I can try to answer this question.  The critical cliché is to view the musical landscape of the late 1980s as a time of musical inauthenticity, when the hair metal of Poison and Warrant and the synth-driven dance pop of Madonna and Paula Abdul topped the charts.  But what’s rarely remarked upon is that even before Nirvana’s Nevermind hit the shelves on September 24, 1991 – which, for many critics, brought punk rock and the authenticity of “true” rock and roll back to the masses – a musical revolution was already underfoot.  Michael Azzerad’s brilliant book, Our Band Could Be Your Life: Scenes from the American Indie Underground 1981-1991(2001), explored the American side of this revolution in its chronicle of several underground bands – including Black Flag, Minutemen, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and Fugazi – and their creation of an indie scene that laid the groundwork for Nirvana’s mainstream success.  During the same time period some “alternative” American bands that Azzerad didn’t cover – Nine Inch Nails, R.E.M., and Jane’s Addiction, come to mind – and British bands such as the Cure, New Order, and Depeche Mode began to fill American stadiums and arenas as participants in major festivals (Lollapalooza) and headlining acts.

I summarize this history to indicate that U2 – just like Nirvana on Nevermind – didn’t release Achtung Baby to an unsuspecting world.  That is, U2 on Achtung Baby simply weren’t as sonically innovative as their 1980s’ predecessors.  Already a global phenomenon, the band on Achtung Baby gathered its greatest strengths – Bono’s remarkable abilities as a charismatic frontman, penetratingly thoughtful lyricist, and tremendous singer; Edge’s compositional genius and mastery of effects-laden guitar work; and Brian Eno’s and Daniel Lanois’ atmospheric and adventurous production style – and combined them with the dance beats, industrial sounds, distorted riffing, and sequencers of the underground pioneers of the 1980s.  Indeed, you can hear a lot of Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine on Achtung Baby’s “Until the End of the World” and “Acrobat,” and the influence of Depeche Mode, Nine Inch Nails, and Massive Attack shine through on the industrial rock and trip hop-influenced “Zoo Station” and “The Fly.”

But the fact that these influences exist on Achtung Baby doesn’t take away from the impact of U2’s songs, which form the finest single collection in the band’s catalogue.  Two factors make these songs stand out: Bono’s exceptional lyrics and Edge’s brilliant guitar work. Now many critics and fans have said that U2, and Bono in particular, explore irony on Achtung Baby – and, of course, irony plays a huge role in Bono’s performance of the character the Fly on the Zoo TV tour, which itself was an ironic mockery of bombastic stadium rock tours.  But “irony” is a very inaccurate adjective to describe Bono’s lyrics on Achtung Baby.  For the first time as a lyricist, Bono offers an earnest and sustained exploration of romantic love and loss throughout the length of an entire album.  He never grandstands, as he’s prone to do on other U2 songs, especially political songs (1983’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” 1984’s “Pride (In the Name of Love),” and 1987’s “Bullet the Blue Sky”), but approaches his topic – which the disintegration of Edge’s marriage supposedly inspired – with sophistication.  For example, the key lines of “One,” perhaps the album’s most iconic song and definitely one of the best breakup songs ever recorded, run, “We’re one, but we’re not the same / We get to / Carry each other.”  In these lines, Bono introduces the concept of divine grace into a song about splitting up, stating that the partners in the dissolving relationship are given the opportunity and the privilege (“get” is the crucial word here) to care for each other.

Edge’s stunning guitar playing and compositional structures throughout Achtung Baby augment Bono’s powerful lyrics.  On “Acrobat,” for example, his odd time signature and heavily distorted guitar create a whirlwind of emotion over which Bono reveals the psychological condition of a hypocrite.  While Bono’s lyrics fuse Alice in Wonderland (1865) with a tale of the power games in a romantic relationship gone terribly wrong on “Until the End of the World,” Edge provides accompaniment with one of his most memorable guitar riffs and most imaginative solos.  Taken in its entirety, Achtung Baby plays like a master course on various ways to play guitar while always serving the song, from the slide work on “Even Better Than the Real Thing” to the minimalistic solo on “One” to the funky distorted riffs of “Zoo Station” and “The Fly.”

Even though recognizing the influences on Achtung Baby may lead to skepticism about its ultimate importance as a piece of innovative music, the album remains U2’s greatest, most consistent achievement because of its songs and their execution.  U2 may never be innovators on the level of Black Flag, Massive Attack, Sonic Youth, Nine Inch Nails, and My Bloody Valentine, but, on Achtung Baby at least, they make the innovations of their predecessors accessible in the form of great, meaningful songs.  It’s their great songwriting and accessibility that make them the true equals of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and Led Zeppelin and the reissue of Achtung Baby, their greatest album, a value in any form.

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