What do you think of when you think of Bono, The Edge, Larry and Adam, the group collectively known as U2? Most people probably think of anthemic songs, promoting peace, love, social change, justice, and a variety of political issues. U2 is all these things and it’s because of songs like “Where The Streets Have No Name”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Beautiful Day” that cement that perception. However, the 90s were home to a different kind of U2. Tired of the heavy handedness of their image and wanting to grow as a band, earnest and awareness gave into satire and self deprecation. Instead of proclaiming to the world their message, they attempted to become that which they rallied against to shine light on the depravity and shallowness of the other side. Of that which is unfulfilling and unproductive. Achtung Baby was the beginning of this transformation and would result in the creation of a new kind of Rock, namely one influenced by the decadent and senses-muffled world of European dancehall music.
Achtung Baby from the very get go signals a very different U2 that’s even jarring today if all you known U2 for is their biggest hits. “Zoo Station”, the album’s opener, has Bono’s voice masked behind a filter, turning one of the most prominent and prolific Rock voices into an eerie, electronic hum that’s sound more like a backwards computer imposter than the crooner behind “With or Without You”. This is a reoccurring theme of the album as Bono plays it low key throughout. Rarely does he belt out lyrics as proclamations, instead singing notes that take advantage of his lower key register. Even songs like “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” have him belt out the lyrics in a controlled state for a more melancholy feel.
This is a purposeful decision. U2 doesn’t want to broadcast anything. Instead, they want you to find it yourself. Achtung Baby presents songs that noticeably sound a bit off and provoke the listener to pay closer attention, especially if you have previous pretenses of what U2 is. Most of the songs have an introspective theme to them, discussing more personal matters rather than global issues. The sentimental responses in “So Cruel” or the confrontational “Until The End of the World” bely a wider message within the whole album of bettering from within before expanding beyond.
Musically, U2 experimented heavily with electronic sounds as well as with elements usually found in Alternative and Industrial Rock. There’s definitely a grittier sound to songs like “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and “The Fly”. However, the more electronic sounds also made for songs that don’t sound like either genre, whether it’s the aloofness of “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World” or the depressing and ethereally haunting “Love is Blindness”. The Edge’s trademark guitar sound and technique is still noticeable here in various parts of the album but it’s equally hidden in others. Even Larry’s percussion is give a different sound in songs like “Mysterious Ways”.
For all the experimentation that Achtung Baby has, there still seems to be enough of that U2 sound here to keep the chances this album takes grounded. On one hand, this makes sure the song’s are never experimental for experimentation’s sake. This allows for songs like “One” to still feel home here, despite its admittedly traditional arrangement. However, there are some songs that just feel harder to listen to due to that foundation not allowing some experiments to float as high as they could. “Acrobat” is probably most representative of this problem. This also makes Achtung Baby not the easiest album to listen to. I have to admit that I needed to listen to this album several times before I could fully enjoy it and appreciate what it was trying to do.
Achtung Baby is an interesting footnote in U2’s discography. It’s now seen as a classic recording and one of the greatest Rock albums of the 1990s. However, I will say that the album is not without its faults. It’s definitely an important album and can be enjoyed throughout but there are some songs that could have been more developed and some songs tighten up to match that perfect feeling. However, none of this actually damages its message, its musical influence or even its legacy. It just makes it not the best album ever. Achtung Baby marks the beginning of the most interesting period in U2’s history and it’s all the better for it. It’s a must hear for any music fan and for anyone wondering what else Rock sounded like in the 90s that wasn’t Grunge or Punk. If anything, we have this album and its tour to thank for introducing The Fly, Mirror Ball Man, and MacPhisto.