The U2 Canon - Achtung Baby
I still remember the first time I heard this album. It had been a few years since I fell head over heels in love with the band, and I was no a senior in high school. My mania for The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum had rubbed off on my sister and we both were eagerly anticipating the new U2 album. The day it was released I rushed off to buy a copy at a local record store and returned home with the tape. My sister and I sat on my bed, removed the cellophane, and put the cassette into the small boom box.
What was that? Not actually saying the words, this was what we were asking each other after playing the tape through. What was that? This didn't sound like the U2 we had come to know and love. This sounded weird, harsh. Messy. We didn't like it. At all.
Flash forward a few weeks. This being U2, I hadn't tossed the tape, but kept listening, and, of course, I began to hear the U2 I knew, not buried so much as lightly masked by the new sounds they had discovered. After a while I realized how good this music was, how gripping and powerful and album this really was. (And, yes, I was able to convince my sister of the same.)
Today, Achtung Baby stands as my second-favorite U2 album, just ever-so slightly edged out by The Joshua Tree. Many critics (not all) seem to place the album as the best of U2's career, but I do think there's a certain snobbishness at work there. I've seen Achtung Baby praised (and The Joshua Tree criticized in comparison) for being experimental, and for the way it showed how much the band could shine in the way they discovered new sounds and made them their own. Fair enough. But what often gets ignored is that The Joshua Tree was just as experimental--only it was American blues and R&B sounds that were being transformed into U2 music, not European industrial sounds.
Be that as it may, this is one remarkable album, and a career highlight to be sure.
1. "Zoo Station" - The opening track starts off with what sounds for all the world like someone clinking a glass with the edge of a fork to get a room's attention. And then the Edge crunches in, with a simple riff (note, down an octave and a step and up the step to the lower octave) made powerful by the heavy distortion laid on top of his guitar. This riff is repeated, then answered by a pounding, static- and distortion-heavy backbeat. Boom-boom-boom. This pattern repeats and slowly an insistent guitar figure is introduced into the mix, the drums pick up a beat, and eventually the whole collage collides into a heavy, driving beat with Bono crooning over it.
My sister and I were floored.
Bono's voice is distorted here, with heavy effects over top, but eventually it smoothes out to a more recognizable timbre. This is a great U2 song, and a superb way to open the album, to announce, in effect, that a new U2 is in town.
2. "Even Better than the Real Thing" - Not one of my favorites, it's nonetheless a high-energy way to keep the album moving, and a nice complement to the more heavy opener. I love that cymbal-y sound in the percussion--don't know what it is, but it works.
3. "One" - It's becoming increasingly clear that 50 years from know, a 100 years from now, this will be the song that U2 is remembered for this will be their standard, their contribution to the annals of popular song. It's a simple song really, with a basic four chord structure, but the way the Edge picks out two different complementary melodies over top of the strumming acoustic gives the song real shape and form. And Bono delivers, for him, an understated vocal, full of real feeling and emotion. What I often forget about this song is the real soul it possesses--listen to the way the full band gels more and kind of takes over in the second verse. It's got a great build too, with that addition and then, in the third verse, the more prominent synths adding to a more robust soundscape. And this may be Bono's ultimate bit of malleable lyric writing. This heartfelt song about love and loss has received (fairly gotten to) political readings, romantic readings, and personal readings. I have a hunch artists will be reinterpreting this song for decades to come.
4. "Until the End of the World" - A great end-of-the-world song with a great intro--a distorted wail of a vocal and then ominous bongo-sounding drums before the riff proper kicks in. The lyric, famously, is sung from Judas' point of view as he addresses Jesus, presumably right after the betrayal. "In the garden, I was playing the tart/I kissed your lips and broke your heart." Bono's vocal is inspired here, in the way he adopts a lower, less operatic tone for this Judas character.
5. "Who's Gonna Ride Your wild Horses" - My favorite break up song of all time. Listen to the way the intro combines the ragged pain of a breakup with the more tender memory of love through the sweet strings in the right channel and the distortion-heavy guitar in the left. Some of Bono's best lyric writing ever - "You're dangerous, 'cause you're honest." "You're an accident waiting to happen." It's also a vocal triumph, one of his best ever--listen to the bridge, and the way he just completely nails, without falsetto, in full open voice, an emotionally naked high C. Brilliant.
6. "So Cruel" - That rare piano-dominated U2 track, this song is pretty underrated, even by the band (it was one of only two from the album that weren't played on tour). A slow, sad, shuffling ballad with a tender vocal.
7. "The Fly" - The album's first single, and the real announcement to the world that a new U2 was in town. I love the way the song opens as if a mistake has been made--that Fly riff is started, abandoned, and then brought back--almost as a tease (this isn't really the new U2 sound--yes it is). The tribal beat, low and primal adds a lot to the atmosphere, but that insinuating riff really defines the song. This song also features the debut of Bono's "fat lady" falsetto, here married nicely with his lower vocals on the verses.
8. "Mysterious Ways" - I think this may have been the album's biggest single. It's a great U2 song, with a funk and propulsive Edge riff driving away over a belly-dancing fat Adam Clayton bass line. It's funny, "You Light Up My Life" gets mocked for being a love song that's really about God, but it sometimes seems like half of U2's canon could be classified the same way, and this song is a prime example. Who moves in mysterious ways?
9. "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World" - A tender respite from the high energy that's come before. A late-night, tired sigh of a song that played wonderfully late in concerts on tour.
10. "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" - The bag of riffs the Edge keeps pulling from was well-stocked. Yet another quintissentially U2 riff dominates this urgent song, a song that quite nicely starts to set up, in a very subtle way, the dark turn the album takes at its end. For those who think Bono's opera obsession (as demonstrated on the new album's "Sometimes You Can't Make It on Your Own") is new, don't miss the "When I was all messed up/And I heard opera in my head" line.
11. "Acrobat" - One of U2's best. Larry's almost jazzy tapping on the cymbals opens the song before the Edge and Adam pound in with their relentless, hammering riffs. The song just keeps pounding away, as the Edge lays ringing, desperate tones on top of that driving figure, and Bono sings with as much passion and hurt as he ever has. I can never get over how underrated this song is.
12. "Love Is Blindness" - And what a closer. It's a song about suicide. It's that simple, and complex. The song opens with a funereal organ line intro before the dark, beating bass line and skittering drums kick in. Once the vocals start, so does the lovely, sad piano line. Bono sounds so tired, so sad--it's a remarkably effective vocal. And the Edge pulls off what he's been promising since "I Will Follow" - a guitar solo of one note. Beautiful.