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Radical Reinvention: U2 Gets Over Themselves

By the end of 1989, U2 was the biggest band in the world. I was a huge fan, and had been ever since I was 7 years old and heard the October album for the first time (it helps to have a cool aunt). They had just completed a world tour documented by the movie and album Rattle and Hum, which spawned from the massively successful 1987 offering, The Joshua Tree. They were everywhere, all the time, and it was starting to be exhausting for both band and fans. They felt they’d done everything they could, musically, so the band threw themselves a New Year’s Eve party during which Bono told fans “It’s no big deal, it’s just — we have to go away and…and dream it all up again.

And so they did.

Achtung Baby is an album born of conflict and hope. U2 spent some time recording at the Hansa studios in Berlin between the fall of the Berlin wall and the official reunification of Germany in 1990. David Bowie had created some of his best work there and the band were hoping to be energized by the city that inspired both Bowie and Iggy Pop. However, while the country around them was making up, U2 were on the verge of breaking up. Despite long studio days, the band couldn’t decide on a musical direction and tensions were running high. Eventually, they found their way and the result is something that had never been heard before.

The opening track, Zoo Station, starts with a chainsaw of guitar that is answered with a crash of drums. Dark and electric, it sets the tone for the rest of the album. Bono’s vocals, usually loud and proud, were reduced to a highly-processed, breathy whisper-growl. This was not the U2 we had come to know, and they were determined to make that clear. U2, it seemed, had learned to dance.

The Fly was released as the first single in October 1991 ahead of the album proper, which arrived in stores on November 18th of that year. If ever there were a way to say “hey, things have changed around here,” this was it. With the lines “every artist is a cannibal/ every poet is a thief/ all kill their inspiration/ and sing about the grief” Bono was telling us what he and the band had done: they had killed the “old” U2. Gone were the cowboy hats and weird bolo ties and The Edge’s ponytail and heart-on-sleeve earnestness. In their place, we got shiny black leather, glitter, and the plastic fantastic feeling of having taken a sip from the wrong glass in the nightclub of your fever dreams. If the U2 of the 80s was a wholesome glass of milk, the U2 of the 90s was shaping up to be a glass of absinthe. “Forget everything you think you know about us,” it says. “This is something else entirely.”

Achtung Baby is, in many ways, an adult record. It is missing the big, youthful, in-your-face, capital letters DRAMA of their earliest work and it moves away from the “let’s all save the world” feeling of The Joshua Tree/Rattle & Hum. Achtung Baby has already seen the world and is equal parts amused by it (Even Better Than The Real Thing) and completely wearied by it (Love Is Blindness). It could be the soundtrack to a relationship breakup, even.

For example, Until The End of The World is the story of Jesus’ betrayal told from the point of view of Judas. They’re at a party, and “everybody havin’ a good time/ except you/ you were talking about the end of the world.” The song illustrates and underlines the fundamental incompatibility of two people who used to love each other. This theme is drawn out over the course of the album, and veers to a cold accusation in Acrobat (“and you must be/ an acrobat/ to talk like this/ and act like that”) from a resigned sort of acceptance in One (“we’re one/ but we’re not the same”). It’s the story of a band breaking up with itself.

25 years later, the musical landscape is very different but I think Achtung Baby has aged gracefully. U2 may not be the biggest or the best band in the world anymore, but they’re still together and still making music that is equal parts interesting and baffling. There have been a few missteps along the way (their most recent album comes to mind), and they’re not my favorite band anymore (we broke up, but that’s a post for another day), but U2, and this album in particular, are as much a part of me as my left thumb.

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