At the end of the 1980s, U2 makes the decision to “go away and dream it up again.”
In 1991, this came true with their seventh album Achtung Baby, which turns 25 years old today. During the early 1990s, U2 went in the alternative direction and chose to embrace rock stardom.
Instead of post-punk and anthem rock, U2 embraces the alternative and industrial rock genres. The sound is that of “Four men chopping down The Joshua Tree”, as Bono describes it. On “Zoo Station”, the song opens with guitar distortion and processing on the vocals. The effect feels as if one is listening to a broken stereo system, which is the intention of the band. Indeed, this new sound marks the birth of a new U2.
Achtung Baby is an album of dark and introspective themes. Whereas U2 once sang of pacifism, the group focuses on temptation, inadequacy, and loneliness. They also look at human weakness and personal contradictions. Here, the mood is dark, edgy yet playful.
Bono praises women on tracks like “Mysterious Ways” and questions relationships in “Love Is Blindness.” “Mysterious Ways” is a funk-type number that examines the way men put females on a pedestal. Special merit should be given to Adam Clayton’s solid bass line.
U2 does return to religious themes in a few of the songs. “Until The End Of The World” examines temptation and human nature. Bono writes the song from Judas Iscariot’s point of view. Such examples include Biblical imagery; “We ate the food / We drank the wine / Everybody having a good time / Except you / You were talking about the end of the world.”
“Even Better Than The Real Thing” focuses on how people opt for instant gratification rather than the truth, all the while set to the industrial sounds of Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming. “One” is not about two people falling in love, because the lyrics detail a messy breakup. For some reason, fans choose to play it at their weddings.
U2 delves into alternative dance with “The Fly”, which Bono describes as a crank call from Hell. The track consists of hip-hop beats, guitar delay effects and an industrial feel. This would lay the groundwork for the band’s 1997 album Pop.
Achtung Baby‘s weak points are few and in between. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” has a nice rhythm, but it feels incomplete and needs more fine tuning. “Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World” is little more than an experimental track of a drunken night on the town. Look no further than the following lines: “A woman needs a man/Like a fish needs a bicycle.”
The songs that deserve another look are the ballads. “One” has a solid structure and beautiful melody. “So Cruel” proves to be a unique track of failed love, because it written from the male point of view. Bono’s anguished delivery of lyrics is poignant and moving to listen to.
“Acrobat” is a lost gem for its raw lyrics focusing on alienation and personal weakness. Despite getting praise from critics, the song has never been performed for an audience, because the group feels they cannot do a good live version.
Finally, “Love Is Blindness” is a melancholic, cathartic song that closes the album. Producer Brian Eno plays an organ-type sound on the keyboards, and Edge’s guitar work on this track is one of his finest performances. As the song builds to a climax, one can hear his strings breaking in the concluding solo.
Twenty-five years on, Achtung Baby stands the test of time as a great album. The songs are impressive to listen to, and it does not feel dated or cliche. By embracing new influences, U2 succeeds in musically reinventing themselves as a band. Through the rest of the decade, they had varying degrees of success with their new sounds. Since then, they tend to go back to their 1980s anthemic sound. One can hope they will dream up another reinvention.