U2 - Achtung Baby
Island Records, 1991
In 1991, a year and a day after I was born, U2 released their long-awaited follow-up to The Joshua Tree, an album that was (and still is) considered as one of the greatest masterpieces in rock and roll. People seem to forget that on their first few albums, U2 were a band dwelling firmly in the genre of post-punk, far from the arena-filling sound they're known for now. The Joshua Tree completed a metamorphosis (which had begun on War and continued on The Unforgettable Fire), and turned them into a larger-than-life arena rock band. Within that album's first three songs (still arguably the strongest opening to any record I've ever heard), they had created a sound that countless of bands are still trying to emulate and which they are still, in many ways, trying to live down. The songs on Joshua were big, bombastic, glorious and inspirational: it was their American record, full of cinematic, expansive and spiritually yearning songs, all led by Bono's incredible vocal performance, still one of the best ever put to record. Rolling Stone wrote that the record catapulted the Irish quartet "from stars to superstars," and it's easy to see why.
A couple years later, after the dust of the disastrous Rattle and Hum project had started to clear, U2 holed up at Hansa Studios in Berlin. The Berlin wall had just fallen, and the band was seeking inspiration from a city reunited, but the atmosphere proved stifling, and the band seemed fresh out of ideas. Conflict over musical direction rendered the early sessions almost useless, and nearly resulted in the break-up of a band that had only so recently seemed like they were on top of the world. Then, out of a skeletal guitar riff composed by the Edge, Achtung Baby began to emerge. That guitar riff would go on to become "One," the album's centerpiece ballad, a song still regarded not only as the band's greatest gift to the world, but one of the greatest songs of all time, period. Bono's lyrics, which painted a picture of a relationship coming to a painful end, reflected the atmosphere of the early sessions, but the song was a transition, and would ultimately re-inspire the band to create what would become this album. While I would personally put a couple of The Joshua Tree's tracks ahead of it ("Where the Streets Have No Name" is top five, all time for me), "One" is the kind of song that only comes along a few times in a lifetime. Everything about the song, from the Edge's guitar intro to the emotion in Bono's voice as the song hits it's climax, still sounds as fresh today as it ever did. It's been covered countless times, in different styles, contexts and environments, but it still sounds best as it was 20 years ago, on this record. And it's only just the beginning.
When it was released, on November 19th, 1991, Achtung Baby was heralded as a triumphant return for one of the greatest bands in rock and roll, and as a darker, more introspective record. Now, it's considered one of the most successful reinventions in the history of rock music, a record that blurs the lines between pop, rock, and dance music, and one that brought U2 into a new decade on top of their game; it's all of those things in one. It's pop music at it's most glorious (singles "Even Better Than the Real Thing" and "Mysterious Ways"), it's heartbreak (the aforementioned "One," the piano based "So Cruel" or the sweeping power balladry of "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses"), it's the sound of, as Bono put it, "four men chopping down the Joshua Tree" (the shimmering beats and falsetto chorus of "The Fly"). It touches upon wistful, lovelorn nostalgia (the nighttime anthem and album highlight "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"), Biblical rewrites (the conversation between Jesus and Judas that Bono imagines on "Until the End of the World"), the band's time in Berlin (rousing opener "Zoo Station") and even stumbling home drunk ("Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World"), before it descends into complete darkness on the album's final two cuts ("Acrobat" and "Love is Blindness").
There's not a less-than-stellar song on the set, and U2's recent reissue, complete with a disc of early versions of these songs and a disc of b-sides (as well as the album's follow-up, the disjointed pop record, Zooropa, which is never really thought of as anything but a footnote on the U2 legacy, but which contains some truly great songs), show that U2 are remarkably good at editing their own material. Achtung Baby is about as perfect an album as artists who aren't Bruce Springsteen can make, and sits as one of my personal favorites. These songs have an ability to grow and change as time passes, and they remain not only relevant, but truly powerful long after much of the music released around the same time has begun to sound dated. And while The Joshua Tree will always be my favorite U2 album, every time I listen to Achtung Baby, there's a moment, usually somewhere around the chilling bridge of "Ultraviolet," where I think the band might have peaked here. It's a truly stunning set of songs, wonderfully written and performed, richly produced and flawlessly sequenced, and the result is one of the greatest albums of the 90's, and of all time.