All-Time Albums: #11


U2 Achtung Baby

1 Zoo Station 4:36
2 Even Better Than The Real Thing 3:41 (UK single, #8)
3 One 4:36 (UK single, #7)
4 Until The End Of The World 4:39
Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses? 5:16 (UK single, #14)
So Cruel 5:49
7 The Fly 4:29 (UK single, #1)
Mysterious Ways 4:04 (UK single, #13)
9 Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World 3:53
10 Ultra Violet (Light My Way) 5:31
11 Acrobat 4:30
12 Love Is Blindness 4:23

Although released right at the end of 1991, this is where I felt the Nineties began; some suggest that Nirvana’s Nevermind (September 1991) was the gamechanger, but I never really bought into their rehashed Pixies schtick and the predictable quiet-loud-quiet-loud formula. It still sounded like 1989 to me (and I don’t mean the Taylor Swift album). No, U2 reinvented themselves, and invented the new decade at the same time, with Achtung Baby.

Its tortured genesis has been well documented, the band’s attempts to shake off the self-imposed Rattle & Hum stigma proving a less than smooth process. But the finished article, issued the same week as Michael Jackson’s Dangerous (and thus deprived of a #1 debut), was mind-blowing in its total deconstruction of the U2 myth. You can almost hear them starting from scratch, as they find new ways to avoid sounding like the old U2.

Musically, it bears the hallmarks of an awful lot of work and studio time, fashioning song structures from elongated jams and snippets of ideas. The most arresting aspect of the album, though, is the lyrical approach. Gone are the flag-waving, chest-beating, this-song-has-a-message anthems, the windswept romanticism, and in comes a new directness, self-deprecating humour and a touch of awkward surrealism. Suddenly a group which were going nowhere at the end of the 1980s have reinvigorated themselves.

Singles-wise, the campaign was a bit of a mess; The Fly was chosen as lead single but deleted within weeks to make way for Mysterious Ways, which promptly failed the reach the Top 10 in the pre-Christmas melee. Even Better Than The Real Thing found itself eclipsed by a remix, and the two versions’ chart runs overlapped. A year on from the album’s appearance, its final single Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses limped to #14. Thankfully, by this point in their career, U2’s profile no longer depended upon Top 40 success, with the revolutionary Zoo TV world tour putting them right at the cutting edge of pop culture and keeping Achtung Baby on the chart for all of 1992 and into 1993.

From here, they’d go on to issue the slightly throwaway, improvised brilliance of Zooropa (heavily influenced by Bowie and Talking Heads) before overreaching with the flawed Pop in 1997. After that, perhaps wounded by the reception afforded to Pop and its accompanying tour, U2 went backwards, content to churn out typical stadium rock fare and serve Bono’s ever-expanding monstrous ego.

I went about a decade unable to listen to a band that were once my favourites during those heady years of 1991-95, but I can’t deny Achtung Baby’s importance to me or its enduring qualities.


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