I had a discussion with friend Rasmus a few years ago about records, and how some of them make up a sort of microcosm of their own – like entering a room and closing the door. One example I gave was Blur’s 13 and we both absolutely agreed on Achtung Baby belonging there as well. It’s a world unto its own, both a completely separate entity and also completely the sound of the early nineties.
I had started listening to U2 before and during a week long hospital stay in 1991 – mainly Rattle & Hum because I was not entrusted with the LP player at that time. So I kept that CD and an MC copy playing all through the year, and then one day I heard a loud, loud racket from my room. My dad sat there painting an Airfix model plane we had put together with the radio on, blasting out “The Fly” for all it was worth. I didn’t believe him at first when he said this was U2’s new song.
This record, like few others, roars to life. In technical terms, that opening riff of “Zoo Station” is almost unique in rock music: a very rapidly strum slide. How often do you hear that as a featured riff? However, it quickly opens up from the tight soundworld of the intro to echoes, shimmering background guitars and flanging keyboards. I really like it, but it is dangerously repetitive and really needs the studio effects to make it varied enough – they played it again recently on the the Vertigo tour and it fell flat on its face. Still the best thing with this song may be how effectively it alienates the “fans” who want U2 to remain in their greyscale 80’s bubble.
“Even Better Than the Real Thing” starts off with a riff inspired by Edge’s new favourite toy at the time, the Digitech Whammy pedal, which is what makes the guitar sound “weeo-weeo”. There is some really fine playing by the Edge on this track, especially the thing he does right as the chorus starts. There is also a slide solo which is beautifully carried over into the next verse.
So far, the lyrics have been fine but not exceptional, dealing with starting-over (“Zoo Station”) and being horny, basically (“Even Better Than the Real Thing”). But taken into the context of the time, they are very different from what came before on The Joshua Tree and Rattle And Hum, being much more personal and abstract. The next song, however, is an icon of rock lyricism whether you like it or not. Listen to “One” while disregarding the knowledge that it is dangerously close to becoming a cliché in popular culture, and read the lyrics carefully. It is an amazingly mature work for someone aged 30 at the time of writing and probably U2’s most well known song. Personally I think it is one of the best songs ever written – the dynamics of the music, the quality and restraint of the lyrics and the singing, the fact that it is not sullied with a guitar solo: all of it. The finest performance I have heard can be found on the PopMart live DVD.
“Until the End Of the World” is another classic, but this one is a proper rocker with another one of those simple-yet-sublime guitar riffs that just come flowing out of Edge on this album. The lyrics are of a biblical nature, but from a new perspective for a U2 song. This song is great live with an extended ending and it is great fun to play as well.
After that, unfortunately, the album enters a bit of a slump. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” has many good lyrical ideas, the bridge beginning with “ah, the deeper I spin” especially is brilliantly written and phrased vocally, but the music never takes off. The song plods on, feeling uninspired and unfinished. It is a shame, then, that the following “So Cruel” is even worse. I have simply never liked it, there are no original ideas in the music which feels too much like it was built in the studio rather than constructed out of the interplay between musicians. The fact that it is the longest track on Achtung Baby only makes matters worse. There is nothing wrong with the lyrics, they just do not feel comitted – and again, there is too much of them.
And then, “The Fly”. This is about as far from “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” as one can get and that is a very good thing. Ferocious guitar playing, a relentless rhythm section, sneeering, brilliant lyrics – this is “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree” as Bono himself put it. He has also commented on the lyrics as being a “phonecall from Hell, and the guy likes it there”. I love this song.
“Mysterious Ways” is a song in the same vein as “Even Better Than the Real Song” – a love song, focusing on the more physical aspects of love – while acknowledging that women really do rule the world, whatever us males may delude ourselves with. It has belly-dancing built into it and the live guitar solo is amazing.
While “Mysterious Ways” may have the best swing and swagger, “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World” has the best bass groove by far. The lyrics sound like someone being comforted, someone who is trying to love everything and everyone and losing themselves in the process.
Something that influenced much of the lyrics on this record was the Edge’s divorce before recording started. It’s been felt before in “Wild Horses” and “So Cruel” and will dominate the last part of this album, starting with “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”. This is troubled love, love that has gone lost, with nostalgia and longing for days gone by in the last verse. Unfortunately, the music never really takes off and this becomes one of U2’s more forgettable songs.
The next song, “Acrobat”, is one of my all-time favourite U2 songs. The desperation in the lyrics is palpable and the vocal performance goes from despondent to emotional to equally desperate; this is someone stuck in a terrible situation, cut loose and flailing yelling “and I can love, and I can love” into the void at the end. The music has great drive, but it is that shriek from the guitar at the beginning of the solo that sends shivers down my back every time, a terrifying sound of pure desperation.
And in the end, there is only emptiness. The desillusionment of “Love Is Blindness” is complete: there is no light at the end of the tunnel, no silver lining, no hope left, only grief. Rock bottom. U2 albums generally end on an emotional note – “Mothers Of the Disappeared”, “All I Want Is You”, “40” – but this is more like anti-emotion, the closest to nihilism this band will ever come. As an album closer it is devastating, confirming the emotional upheaval that has gone before and bringing it all to a numbing halt. Seeing and hearing Bono as Macphisto singing it at the end of Zoo TV is deeply chilling.
Achtung Baby is an amazing album in so many ways: how it brought colour into the previously greyscale U2 universe, how the lyrics are exclusively internal/personal – notice the complete absence of political songs? -, the way Zoo TV redefined the rock gig, that the Edge finally cut his hair. Etcetera. But it is also an exhausting listen, because to get the complete Achtung Baby experience the listener has to enter that loud, difficult, demanding, overwhelming, flashing multicolour room and live through the emotional onslaught. It’s not easy, but in return this is one of U2’s most rewarding works.