Achtung Baby (released 11/18/91) represents the flashpoint of popularity and ambition for U2. The mega-successful Irish band has become something of a caricature of itself in the three-decade interim since its release, but at the time, their willingness and ability to reconfigure their image to their own ends was nothing less than brilliant because the brave move only rendered their music that much more potent.
This seventh U2 studio album, produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, signaled a tangible creative rebound in the wake of criticism afforded 1988’s Rattle and Hum. In a marked contrast to that markedly rootsy approach, the band shifted direction to incorporate modern influences effectively continuing an evolution of their sound. Each recording since 1981’s sophomore LP October had been increasingly dense in both arrangement, composition and sonic textures and in this case, special kudos go to Flood for engineering and mixing (with three instances of the latter task performed by early U2 producer Steve Lillywhite). If there is a primary color for this audio it is indeed “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” the title of one of the most self-absorbed songs on the record.
Dark, introspective, and at times flippant (perhaps to a fault), Achtung Baby is the aural equivalent of the subsequent multimedia-intensive Zoo TV tour that followed. Yet the album’s continuity belies the early sessions in German recording studios where the atmosphere was so fractious the quartet almost disbanded; repairing to Ireland with its long-time producing team, U2 subsequently forged an absorbing piece of work, book-ended by its most adventurous cuts: at the start, the raw cacophony of “Zoo Station” mirrors the fade from hymn-like organ to dissonance on “Love Is Blindness” at the end. Taken together the pair of tracks most vividly represent the spectrum of conflicting emotions within the material here.
U2 sound as if they are struggling on the ten selections in between, too. Often sounding as clumsy as they looked awkwardly staged in the cover photos, the issues they address within the abstract likes of “The Fly” are more personal than global (notwithstanding remembrance of political prisoners within the enclosed booklet). The steadfast familiarity of their style is perhaps the only force of gravity to rely upon and indeed, tracks like “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and “Until The End of the World” are built on the staccato guitar figures The Edge had mastered back on 1983’s War. Bono’s vocals are no less emphatic than his singing on The Joshua Tree from four years later, but he’s hardly the faithful searcher and more self-aware skeptic: ‘I must be an acrobat to talk like this and act like that.”
Yet as self-deprecating as he sounds there—and a little defensive too–over the insistent rumble of Larry Mullen Jr.’s drums and Adam Clayton’s bass, he’s blatantly accusatory during “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” Meanwhile, if it’s not meant sarcastically, “One” lacks sincerity; in a very real foreshadowing of U2’s identity issues in the next decade, it is the bond of the band that renders forceful rather than facile such numbers as that and “Mysterious Ways.” Playing and producing, Eno and Lanois help the foursome conjure a shadowy and largely unsettling air even more stark than that of The Unforgettable Fire.
The commercial success of Achtung Baby gave way to its somewhat muddled successors, Zooropa and Pop, but U2 regained its clarity of purpose in the 2000’s with All That You Can’t Leave Behind and How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. Yet that authoritative sense of self became somewhat diffuse with No Line On The Horizon, a process of decline that sped up with the Apple debacle involving Songs of Innocence and then Songs of Experience, a work so self-conscious the production and musician credits took almost as much space as the song lyrics in the album liner. It thus seems much longer than just thirty years ago since this particular act of courage from these four natives of Dublin.