U2’s Achtung Baby: A Second Listen

U2 = Achtung Baby album cover

When I first heard U2’s “The Fly” from their album Achtung Baby, I was ready to embrace this new sound that was rumored to be coming from the band. “The Fly” seemed somewhat like their old music, but more manic, more electronic. But it still had soaring vocals in the chorus, and I held out hope that they wouldn’t do anything stupid.

So much for hope. When the album came out, it sounded nothing like the U2 of old.

As Bono was fond of saying, Achtung Baby was “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree” (which, to the horror of U2 fans, was actually done to the real Joshua tree in Joshua Tree National Park — the one that was featured on the cover of the album).

Gone were the Edge’s chiming guitars, Larry Mullen’s heartbeat-like tom-toms, and Bono’s plaintive voice. It was straight out of the underbelly of Europe, with all its vices and depravity. The album was industrial, sometimes bordering on techno, with Bono using sound effects on his voice, double-tracking it in octaves. The Edge’s guitar was distorted, using many different effects. Mullen’s drums seemed at times to be replaced by drum machines and hip-hop loops.

So what? you may ask. Bands change their sound all the time. You’re criticizing them for daring to be different?No, I’m saying their “different” sound simply wasn’t that good. The songs seemed tired and contrived, with precious few original ideas on the album. I was so disappointed that I tossed the CD after a few listens.

Over the years, I have tried to appreciate U2’s experimental phase — Achtung Baby, Zooropa and Pop — and for the most part, I have failed. Certain songs on Achtung Baby appeal to me now — “The Fly” is still exciting, and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is filled with emotion and yearning, despite its flimsy lyrics. And while “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” is a retread of some of their older material, it’s more satisfying than any of their experimental tracks.

Listening to the “Kindergarten” remixes, which was part of the “Super Deluxe” version of Achtung Baby, featured stripped-down demos without the experimentation, and it helped me hear more of the melodies. There’s something there. It’s just hidden behind a lot of dissonance, distortion and feedback. It also suffers from overproduction.

Achtung Baby’s lyrics

Analyzing this album for a second time 30 years later, I find that the music doesn’t bother me as much as the lyrics do. The lyrics, which are obviously more personal and deal with relationships, are full of double entendres that are definitely not the U2 I grew up with:

  • “You can swallow, or you can spit / You can throw it up, or choke on it” (“Acrobat”)
  • “Did I disappoint you/Leave a bad taste in your mouth?” (“One”)
  • “If you wanna kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel” (“Mysterious Ways”)

Other lyrics were just elementary, as if Bono were in a hurry to write something down:

  • “We’re one, but we’re not the same” (“One”)
  • “It’s alright, it’s alright /Hey baby, hey baby / It’s alright, it’s alright” (“Zoo Station”) and “It’s alright, it’s alright, alright” (“Mysterious Ways”)
  • “You’re dangerous, ’cause you’re honest” (“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”)
  • “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” (“Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World”)

Their signature hit, “One,” seems like they backpedaled and tried a little too hard to recreate “With or Without You.” It’s one of the better tracks on the album, but it’s too overbearing and preachy even for me.

The bad outweighs the good here. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is repetitive in both music and lyrics, “So Cruel” is plodding and murky, and “Acrobat” is tuneless. “Mysterious Ways” is by far the worst track, sounding like a new single from Jesus Jones.

I understand what U2 was trying to do here. I understand why Bob Dylan plugged in his guitar at the Newport Folk Festival. I understand Radiohead trying to push the envelope with their quirky, electronic music. But sometimes it doesn’t always work.

I know I’m in the minority here. Almost all critics embraced the group’s bold step away from their traditional sound and praised Bono’s more personal lyrics, which took root after the Edge’s marriage fell apart. But why did The Joshua Tree need chopping down? U2, for all their pretentiousness, preachiness and self-importance, worked as a band. They threw all that out with Achtung Baby. And even though they returned to their roots with subsequent albums, I still haven’t quite forgiven them for skydiving over the edge and becoming the pricks that many people thought they really were. They flipped the music world off, and I flipped them off right back.

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  1. Steve

    It’s funny, I immediately recoiled from “the Fly” and didn’t give the album a chance until the 2nd or 3rd single. I still can’t stand the (Zoo Station) intro and usually skip the fly, but the rest of their album settled over me and it is my second favorite album by the band (behind the obvious Joshua Tree). I didn’t like their continued dive into the “underbelly of Europe” as you rightly call it. Other than a song or two haven’t much enjoyed that phase at all. I think this album reveal Bono’s shallowness in lyrics, despite their seeming depth. But like most music/art you find the depth you give to it and I can forgive quite a lot of lyric problems if I enjoy the music. I think I would have been more heartbroken with the album if I were more than a passing U2 fan of anything other than Joshua Tree – (as my U2 superfan friends were).

  2. Peter Lee

    Yes, this was my attempt at taking an objective look at the album after the “Hey, they’re U2! they’re not supposed to do that!” reaction. I was a diehard fan, and they indeed chopped the Joshua Tree down…