U2: Achtung Baby (1991)

For me, this is U2’s most prolific album. As the 1980s progressed, and their commercial appeal increased, I lost interest in the band. I found their early material unique and their sound very satisfying. A few other 1980s bands like The Fixx, Dire Straits and XTC were more creative and daring.

For Achtung Baby, U2 reteamed with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, having last worked together on the mega-hit, The Joshua Tree. I’m the one person on the planet that did not really warm up to The Joshua Tree. Well-crafted and a very populist work and sold a gazillion copies. I grew tired of hearing it played endlessly. Then came Rattle and Hum, a soundtrack of U2’s journey through America. This album totally put me off the group.

Then came Achtung Baby.

Achtung Baby has a very different sonic landscape from their past work. Lanois was the main producer and used Eno as a consultant, he was the voice who pushed U2 to not sound like itself. Here they take chances. It’s gritty, and as much as The Edge sets the table, Adam Clayton’s bass is the MVP here.

This album crackles with electricity. The 1980s were all about technology and it tended to remove the soul from the music. That is not the case here. While it often sounds industrial and jarring, U2 walks the line between harnessing technology and being a prisoner of it.

Achtung Baby might put off some the fans who climbed aboard the U2 cruise-liner for The Joshua Tree. While there are a few familiar type songs, this ship is headed in a very different direction.

Years later, U2 re-released Achtung Baby in several expanded formats. The band loves to tinker with their music and provide alternate mixes and completely different versions. If you thought the original album was high octane, get ahold of an expanded release.

The recording sessions began in Berlin, after the fall of the wall, in the same studio Bowie had recorded his dark Berlin albums. The darkness and gloom of the city that energized Bowie, apparently did the opposite for U2, although the harsh, industrial edge would weave through the songs. Berlin proved to be a less than fruitful affair, the city’s atmosphere and band dynamics drove them back to the familiar confides of Dublin.

“One” is a great ballad. Poignant, yet searing. It’s an anthem without over shooting the target.

“Even Better Than the Real Thing”   The Edge owns this song, but his guitar is mixed low in the sound.  Not sure why.

“The Fly” A ragged vibe.  Edge processes his guitar to the extreme.  You want to move to this song, admit it.

“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” A great merging of acoustic and distorted electric instruments.  A very melodic sing-along.  Nice job.

I did not even mention terrific songs like “Mysterious Ways” which was a hit for the band. The album includes slow, moody, atmospheric songs like “Love is Blindness” and “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”, and noisy, electronic songs like “Acrobat” and “Zoo Station.”

If the goal was to not repeat and shed the typical U2 sound, Achtung Baby accomplishes that. There are the obvious singles as always, but the intent was to resist polishing them and leave the jagged sonic edges.

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