How can a band top creating one of the great albums of all time? By accepting that they had captured they had intended to of a particular sound and breaking out with something new, U2 did just that when they released Achtung Baby as the studio follow-up to The Joshua Tree. Bringing a touch of mainland Europe into their sound made all the difference.
“Zoo Station” opens with some crunchy guitar work that is clearly an immediate sonic departure from The Edge’s signature ringing tones. The ringing is still there later in the song, disguised behind some well-placed feedback. The song has a strong upbeat rhythm and still features Bono’s whispered phrases and soaring choruses.
With the opening to the second song, “Even Better Than The Real Thing”, it is clear the new sound is here to stay and, what more, it works. Here, I hear a bit more of the U2 of old, but with a vibrancy not found eon earlier albums. Perhaps it is because Larry Mullen, Jr. is on top of the beat, but there is an aggressiveness to this song that makes it so good.
“One” mellows things a bit too quickly in a “Where did that come from?” kind of way. The song settles into a nice groove, complete with deeper lyrical content than the first two offerings. The conclusion evolves out of the groove with Bono’s resolute vocals. Time has dulled the power of those lines a bit, as I must have heard this song hundreds or even thousands of times in twenty years.
The next song, “Until the End of the World” is darker, with very strong Christian allusions. The song is about Jesus, but told from Judas’ perspective. The lyrical content overshadows the music a bit, partly because the melody is lyrical in itself. Overall, it is another strong offering from a great band still assembling their new sound.I
In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim
“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is the first song on the album that really sounds like it is from The Joshua Tree era. The song is a heartbroken ode to a free-spirited lover. Its likely inspiration was The Edge’s recent or ongoing divorce.
“So Cruel” is a pretty messed up song with a fantastic sound. It’s subject matter covers a relationship full of infidelity, where the male partner is forced to witness her sexual escapades. It would seem that her idea of love differs substantially from his, a fact that pains him to no end. Yet, he still loves her and she knows this, making each act of deviance one of cruelty for him. I might not have said this when the album was first released, but this may be the best song on it.
“The Fly” throws the album back into new musical territory. Hello, distortion! The song is notable as the introduction to Bono’s new stage persona, but it lacks the compelling riffs that grace “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and the next song.
Oh yes, the next song. I don’t know a music fan who couldn’t name this song after hearing just the opening chord. “Mysterious Ways” was a huge success and that riff was a large part of it. The ambiguous lyrics help as well, the surface lyrics about a woman reveal a song about religious faith at a deeper level.
“Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is about the surrealism of fame and excess. It has a lazy sway about it as if it were not a big deal. The narrator remains resolute that he will return home to the woman he loves in the end.
Illuminating things we could not otherwise see is the theme of “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”. Here we see the curing power that love can bring. The soaring chorus has returned in a style reminiscent of songs like “With or Without You”. Love anthems are clearly well within their repertoire and this one plays well.
“Acrobat” is a song about the mental gymnastics the narrator needs to believe in his religion. He no longer believes, but still cannot let go of what it has meant to him. The idea of dreaming “out loud” is appealing, but he realizes he can no longer follow that path.
The finale is a slower, more atmospheric song shrouded in layers of meaning. The rumbling bass and sharp, dissonant guitar build tension throughout the song. “Love is Blindness” could be about love and sex, but reads just as well as being about depression and suicide. I opt to believe the former, as it fits better with the rest of the album. The song fades away in a subtle manner, so that it evokes the appearance of mist burning off in the sun.
Twenty years have elapsed and Achtung Baby is still strong. When held up against The Joshua Tree, it is amazing that they were created by the same band, a clear testament to U2′s talent. They are both among the greatest albums of my lifetime and Achtung Baby is powerful enough to continue delivering the goods today.