Achtung Baby


Island Records, 1991

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Berlin had to be a heady place to be recording a new album in 1990-91. The Wall had just fallen. East and West Germans were mixing and partying and rediscovering one another's cultures for the first time in a generation. And U2 needed a hit.

They needed a hit because the arc of fame and admiration/adulation that had risen through War and The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree had leveled, perhaps even slid a bit, in the wake of the somewhat bloated and self-indulgent Rattle And Hum album and movie. The whispers were out that maybe the band that had been plastered across the cover of Time magazine as global icons was growing out of touch, maybe even threatening to become irrelevant.

If that malady was the disease, Achtung Baby was the cure.

This disc is the sound of U2 catching fire yet again, of a band that had already reinvented itself from angry post-punks to earnest, majestic rock and rollers going through yet another metamorphosis. Exit bombastic dabblers in American r&b and gospel, enter Euro-hip purveyors of brash experimental rock.

The one thing that's absolutely consistent here with the music that came before it is that this band simply oozes charisma. From the purposefully startling harsh industrial opening of kickoff track "Zoo Station" to the frequently distorted riffs to the complex rhythm patterns and dense layers of percussion to the refocusing of the lyrics on relationships rather than larger concepts, the band finds a host of new ways on this disc to simply demand listeners' attention.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

And let's face it, it's pretty tough to accuse a band of irrelevance when they throw off the kind of sparks emitted by powerhouse tracks like "Even Better Than The Real Thing," "Until The End Of The World" and "Mysterious Ways." "Real Thing" is a sharply arranged track featuring stinging, almost otherworldly guitar licks slicing through the middle of Bono's lushly layered vocals. "Until The End…" starts out with a dose of tribal thump from Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton before the Edge brings it hard, slamming down an appropriately apocalyptic riff that bludgeons you silly. This is super-sized rock and roll -- and the lyrics aren't half bad either, a batch of surrealistic poetry with memorable lines like "In my dream I was drowning my sorrows / but my sorrows they learned to swim."

Ah, but they're just the appetizer for "Mysterious Ways," one of the band's greatest creations, turbo-charged by a simply monstrous, throbbing Jimi Hendrix-meets-George Clinton riff laid down over a brilliantly propulsive bass line, dense percussion and Bono's ecstatic vocals. The bridge/breakdown/solo section is a thrill ride all by itself. "Kiss the sky," indeed -- Jimi would smile at this one, I think.

Other memorable tracks like "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" and "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World" seduce with melody. "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)" sounds a bit more like Unforgettable Fire material except that it's once again relationship-focused.

And then there's "One," a track that I've been startled to hear played at more than one wedding. Although the "we've got to carry each other / one love" refrain is on the mark, I keep wondering if these people actually listened to the verses, which describe a tortured affair in which the two victims/lovers are in an utterly miserable state of emotional co-dependence. Whatever gets you to the altar, I guess…!

In the end, "The Fly" may encapsulate what I love most about this album, though, with its combination of dirty, raucous guitar and Bono doing his best Earth Wind & Fire imitation on the "Love, we shine like a burnin' star" harmony vocals. This is the sound of a band at the height of its creative and musical powers, cutting loose and having a blast.

That's a beautiful thing, and also, not coincidentally, the stuff hit albums are made of. "Achtung, world!" said this album -- U2 is back on top.

Rating: A

User Rating: B-



© 2004 Jason Warburg and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Island Records, and is used for informational purposes only.