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U2 – Achtung Baby (1991)

September 24, 2014

[Album 347/1001]220px-Achtung_Baby

I’ve led a sheltered life.

So much so that one of the more shocking experiences of my teenage years was hearing my cousin utter the phrase, “I hate U2.”

Hate?  U2?  I thought, surely this must be a Toronto (or as my blogging colleagues/any self-respecting Canadian would pronounce, Taranna) thing?  Everyone hates Toronto, Torontonians respond by hating…U2?

But sure enough, in University, I learned similar U2 dislike had spread to Eastern Ontario.  I guess I’d been running with a U2-philic crowd!

Based on the, let’s call it, less than universally positive reception to their recent iTunes release, it appears they’re now firmly entrenched in the polarizing group club.

Which brings me to Achtung Baby; an album that, paradoxically, both U2 celebrators & haters might use as Exhibit A when defending or denouncing the band.

What do I think?

I’d say on most U2 records, the album tracks won’t convert non-believers but also won’t send once-fans running.  That’s very much the case with Achtung Baby.

With Bono & friends, it tends to be the singles that separate the flock from the furious.  And there were 5 big ones here.

How you feel about these hits will likely determine how you feel about Achtung Baby and by extension, U2 in general.

I’ll go in order of release:

1. The Fly
A curious lead single choice.  I see the rationale as it’s a change of pace from The Joshua Tree but it’s far from the strongest of the bunch.  Though with the falsetto vocal & pulsing riff, it signposts the direction they would take on future singles Lemon & Discotheque.

2. Mysterious Ways
Another somewhat atypical U2 song.  Listening to it this year, I hear a bit of Happy Mondays in the tune.  Which isn’t a complaint but more an observation of U2’s, to borrow their song name, desire to keep evolving with the times.

3. One
A pleasant ballad with sad lyrics.  It’s not as creepy of course as The Police’s Every Breath You Take but it’s in that same category of slow songs that people likely misuse at weddings.

4. Even Better Than the Real Thing
On the best of ’92 Countdown, I remember MuchMusic VJ Steve Anthony cleverly saying, “What? U2? Again?!  Achtung Baby really was better than the real thing.”  It was my gateway U2 song so naturally I remember it fondly.  I now also smile at the video, thinking of the Glee Episode of Community where Abed sings, “Everything’s better when cameras are spinning.”

5. Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
I don’t think it made it to #1 on the aforementioned Coca-Cola Countdown but it’s my favourite of the set.  It might be the least inventive of the tracks but hey, if it ain’t baroque…

If you’re a fan of these 5, Achtung Baby should go down nice & smooth.  The world class producers (Daniel Lanois, Brian Eno, Steve Lillywhite) certainly don’t hurt the cause.

Throughout, the unheralded rhythm section (Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen Jr.) are their usual reliable selves.  The Edge continues to be an interesting guitarist, not doing anything flashy on the fretboard but getting plenty of great tones out of his pedals.  And Bono is Bono (this time with his ‘Fly’ persona) which listeners will love or loathe as they see fit.

Although I usually end up on one distinct side of these polarizing groups (The Cure? Yes please. ‘Theory of a Nickelcreed’? guess!), with U2 I find myself surprisingly stuck in the middle.

To modify a Tim McGraw (speaking of artists I’m Switzerland-y about) chorus: I like it, don’t necessarily love it, I wouldn’t mind some more of it.

From → 1990s

  1. Theory of a NickelCreed! My work is clearly done.

    I like this album for the leap forward that it is. Probably the last real leap they made. Since Achtung they’ve been chasing trends and their own past.

    And I HATE Mysterious Ways. Far too repeaty for me.

    • Only one of the many LeBrain-isms that has found its way into my day-to-day vocabulary!
      That looping is the Happy Mondays parallel I really picked up on this month – not for all tastes but those who like it, probably like it a lot.

      And chasing trends – the perfect “glass is half empty” counter-view of “desire to evolve with the times!”

      • I would agree with that assessment. I think the glass half empty vs. glass half full analogy in regards to chasing musical trends all depends on your level of cynicism!

      • I wouldn’t say I’m cynical necessarily, but I definitely think of things through a business lens. Madonna’s one that could definitely be accused of chasing trends – however, despite limited vocal ability, she seems to have not so much chased but anticipated trends and for better or worse, stayed relevant for decades!

  2. There is a copy of Rattle and Hum in my car…will probably listen to it on the ride home now…

    • Can’t find much fault with the closer ‘all I want is you’ on that one!

      • I also have to throw some love to “All that You Can’t Leave Behind.” I’ve been told it’s off-key, but the song still makes me cry.
        As does “All I Want is You.” 🙂

      • That’s U2’s best song in my opinion. All I Want Is You is “the one” as far as I’m concerned — their highest achievement.

      • And, gotta love Peter Dinklage in the video…that song tears me up.

      • Holy crap that was him!?!?!??????!

        I have been a fan since The Station Agent…but especially since Elf!

      • Correction – I was wrong!! Paolo Risi. Retraction!!

      • Damn. I still love that video though.

      • I’ll always appreciate all I want is you thanks to a fun memory from university where I was walking down the street with a few of my roomates. One started singing “you say you want diamonds…” and gradually we all joined in, serenading the neighbours!

    • “Heartland” came up on my iPod’s commute rotation this afternoon. Rattle and Hum is fantastic!

  3. I don’t know much about this one. I like the few songs that I know from it. I think the earlier albums of U2 are enough for the scant occasions where I’m in the mood for them. But if I saw this cheap I’d probably go for it.

    • If it’s in a bargain bin, it won’t disappoint. I find I’m not often in a u2 mood but this is likely the one I’d grativitate to when the mood strikes

      • Yes I’m the same. War gets the most listens here.

      • And it’s on the 1001 (along with Joshua Tree, Achtung, and all that you can’t…) – I have the War LP but haven’t listened in ages. I’ll need to brush up on the non-Sunday Bloody Sunday/New Years Day tracks!

  4. This is where they started to get interesting for me, ‘Until the End..’ Is my all-time fave U2 track – come on I can’t think of a single better Biblical song!

    Their next LP ‘Zooropa’ is my fave and I think I may be the only person in the world who thinks that!

    I HATE ‘…wild horses’ though! Hate, hate, hate!!

    • That’s one of the stronger ones here – I like the Edge’s guitar line during the 2nd verse especially.

      Zooropa is an unconventional pick – I applaud that. And I’ll have to give U2 credit, they know how to make people feel (even if it’s hatred), very few are left indifferent!

    • You are the only person in the world who thinks that, 1537.

      • I had Zooropa…got it when it first was released. Listened to it maybe twice? Sold it off. I didn’t like it at all. Might have some merit if I listened to it today…but I had such an adverse reaction to it.

      • When I think of Zooropa, I think of my first summer at the record store (1994) and how we always had a used copy. Always. Usually two.

      • Breaking news: we’ve had a 2nd vote (Ian) for Zooropa as a favourite U2 record!

  5. ianbalentine permalink

    One of 3 U2 albums I can still listen to without cringing. AB was their pinnacle (although I rate follow up Zooropa my personal favorite), and it was a slow decline ever after.

  6. jprobichaud permalink

    Admittedly, not a huge U2 fan, to the point where I gave away my copy of Joshua Tree to a complete stranger in university (hey, she was cute!). However, you can’t argue with their longevity and their talent (I especially appreciate their drum work). I saw them live a few years when they played Ottawa as a favour to then PM Paul Martin (Arcade Fire opened) and thought they put on a great show. And that’s all I have to say about that.

    • Thanks for mentioning the drums – the spotlight tends to be on the singer/guitar, I was pleased when the bass/drums got a turn in the spotlight for recording the Mission Impossible theme in ’96 or so.

      I saw them on the Elevation tour – I knew the grandiose songs would be a show but I was impressed they could also strip it down to just vocals & acoustic guitar and it was equally powerful.

      I’m pleased you also refer to a show from 2006 or earlier as ‘a few years ago’ – for me, if the song is from a year starting with 20-, it’s new!

      • jprobichaud permalink

        Eh? Well, when you get to my age, you get your years confused. But yeah, 2006 sounds about right. This is the reason I keep track of my concerts on my page. I sometimes even forget who I have seen and haven’t.

  7. jprobichaud permalink

    Oh… Wait… And I liked the song “The fly”.

  8. Well, I have all the U2 albums from Boy to Achtung Baby on my iPod…skipped over the Zoo stuff to All You Can’t Leave Behind, Dismantle, and No line (which I honestly haven’t listened to much). I don’t have the new one because I haven’t hooked up my iPod Touch to my iTunes account in centuries.

    Achtung Baby was definitely a turn from the Joshua Tree. But it was different enough that I totally ate it up. I still have my original CD.
    I love Zoo Station and Even Better…

    • A pretty good opening 1-2! In the Zoo Station intro, I got a David Bowie vibe (the intro to Beauty & the Beast from Heroes) – then realized, both are rooted in Berlin.

      I too have iTunes but have yet to explore, I’m sure the new album’s there just haven’t got around to looking yet!

  9. Perhaps it goes to that old split of ‘comfort’ over ‘challenge’.
    Many music fans (the type bloggers might call – not unaffectionately – ‘casual’) look for music that circles rather than extends their listening zone. For those comfortable souls, 27 U2 albums or 93 Van Morrison albums that all sound essentially the same are just the ticket. For the other lot, an aural lobotomy would be more attractive: music is there in all its glorious diversity to invite ears into unknown fields where you might find an exquisite insect or end up neck-deep in evil smelling mud. But that’s the adventure.

    Essentially that’s my problem with books such as “1001 Albums you must…”. Essentially, it’s the mainstream press pressing their back catalogue.

    Probably just as well I’m at the end of this stream of comments, eh?

  10. Shame one cannot edit comments. I’d remove all three instances of the word ‘essentially’. That’s what happens when you write about stadium rock before having your breakfast coffee. Essentially.

    • That’s essentially the problem with the pre-coffee stadium rock post!

      Funny you mention ‘comfort’ – there’s a photo making the rounds with the good quote “a comfort zone is a wonderful place but nothing ever grows there.”

      I’d agree with the limitations of the 1001-style book: I like to think of it as a starting point, rather than a definitive collection.

      I do like when they include multiple albums by bands when it shows some juxtaposition – like the polished Nevermind followed up by the anything but shiny In Utero.

      But if it’s more of the same every album, perhaps one per those artists would suffice

      • Like that quote! And I’m quite aware that it’s part of my sometimes prickly curmudgeonlyness that I get very restless in the corporate Music Mall.

        Your last point is interesting… an album or selection of an artist. Makes me think of Rich Kamer’s recent posts on compilation/Best of albums. When is a selection enough?

        Obviously Vinyl Connection is not going the 1537 or 1001 route of attempting to write about every album in the collection – at 1 a week that’s 140 years worth of posts and I’ve simply started too late in life. But an idea that’s been kicking around for me lately is attempting a subjective survey of an artist highlighting a few albums that I reckon are worth investigating (for those willing to leave the Mall). Any thoughts?

      • I’ve been called ‘nauseatingly positive’ (by a friend of course) so it’s good for me to spend time with self-proclaimed curmudgeons!
        That’s a survey I’d certainly read – there are blogs like mine that focus on larger quantities, I’d be keen to hear about a more selective quality, especially out of the shopping centre jurisdiction.

  11. Not my favorite U2 but I did see them on this tour and it was pretty damn good-with those Eastern European cars dangling from the ceiling and those buffalo running on the big screen all the way through “one”. If it wasn’t for the drunk guy behind me yelling “Bono- I love you man!” for the whole show-it would have been perfect—-

    • The only trouble with concerts – sometimes the audience can make the show and sometimes there’s that Bono-lovin’ guy!

  12. I would say this is my fav U2 album. They lost me after this one but than again for me I got I to them with the Unforgettable Fire release thru Achtung Baby. I still bought there releases after that but I just found after a while they would just sit there and not be spun.
    Who knows what went wrong but yeah totally dig Achtung esp the End Of The World tune. Also dug the sonics of this as there was Nuthin sounding like this at to he time……
    Cool stuff…

    • U2 albums are definitely “productions” – there are lots of layers and some of the guitar sounds (notably on End of the World) really enhanced the songs.
      Probably my fave U2 as well!

  13. I’m another of those folks that really hate U2. Or certainly what they represent these days. That said, I still have a soft spot of this one and The Joshua Tree. In fact, I own a copy of Joshua Tree and dare say I’d likely pick this up if I saw it cheap enough.

    Haven’t ever really bothered with anything beyond Achtung Baby, actually. Well, besides The Wanderer. Johnny Cash, y’know. He just brightens that right up.

  14. Seems most of the world had never heard of U2 until the Joshua Tree. Achtung Baby was their attempt to be edgy as well as epic.
    Some thoughts:

    – ‘One’ has unneccesarily dirty, plasticy guitars when it could have chimed like angels.
    – Same with Acrobat – horrible ugly guitars.
    – I love the guitar playing on The Fly. The Edge was becoming a great user of the wah-wah pedal.
    – On “…Wild Horses” does Bono really say “Who’s gonna fall at the foot of eve”? CRINGE.
    – My favourite track from this album is probably Ultraviolet Love (Light My Way).

    I agree with someone here that Zooropa was great. A much more convincing set of wry, end-of-the- century techno-rock.

    Thanks for raising the subject.

    • It’s funny when a guitar tone sounds out of place – there’s a Blue Rodeo song called “5 days in May.” A really nice acoustic number almost ruined by a harsh distorted directionless solo at the end!
      Nice to see Zooropa has aged well – underappreciated upon release but based on the feedback here, it seems to be one that wasn’t overplayed.

      Thanks for the thoughts!

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. U2 – Achtung Baby Cassette (!) Singles (1991) | 1001albumsin10years
  2. U2 – War (1983) | 1001albumsin10years
  3. 1991 | 1001albumsin10years

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