How U2’s Achtung Baby began the group’s strangest era

U2 Achtung Baby

What do you do when you’ve finished building a castle? You blow it up of course.

To most people from the vantage point of the 2020s, Achtung Baby marks the close of the classic era of U2, the last truly great record from the group before the coming decades brought wave after wave of something between saccharine tooth decay and reeking bullshit. This isn’t quite right, however. Up until this point in our narrative, the view of the broader musical world and our own converged quite nicely. While the earlier U2 records are certainly overshadowed a bit by the perception of the group now as odiously self-serious, there is still a prominence of “New Year’s Day” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on the radio as well as respect from certain keener rock circles. Sure, the group’s early days as a group straddling the line between the Rolling Stones and Joy Division seem glossed over, but that’s the case with the earliest days of many bands. There are certain album cuts from The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree that go underrecognized (namely “Wire,” “Indian Summer Sky” and “In God’s Country”) but the general shape of those records as landmark masterwork recordings is only really disputed by iconoclast types seeking to smash the idol so to speak, not anyone with any serious argument. And Rattle And Hum, while an admirable and deeply charming and sincere work, is rightly understood as inferior to the preceding records, more functioning as a fascinating coda and sketchbook for those wanting to witness the final effloresce of the band’s Americana and folk-driven phase than a record that can stand capably on its own right.

I am not about to argue that Achtung Baby is not a great record; it is. The divergence of our view with the common narrative comes more with an understanding of what Achtung signified both in the moment as well as in the broader view of the band. It is, adamantly, not an ending. This is not only because of its sonic differences, themselves often curiously misunderstood, but also more plainly because more great records were to follow. Likewise, what it began was not only a musical voyage for the group, both spearheading the beginning of a new trilogy of deepening experimentalism for the group, it also sits as the opening door to the strangest and most exciting period of the band’s career, marking as Boy did before a new five-album span that would see the group dissolve their ego integrity into foam before being born totally anew.

And yet despite what was to come for the group in the wake of Achtung Baby, U2 sounds at times shockingly tame, especially compared to the reputation the album developed not only over time but also right in the heart of its production. In the wake of Rattle And Hum‘s mixed reception and the shocking explosion of alternative music into the mainstream of the late ’80s and early ’90s, The Edge found himself getting deeper and deeper into the growing wave of industrial music, citing groups such as Skinny Puppy, an infant Nine Inch Nails, Einstürzende Neubauten and more. This set of sonic referents alone is like a splash of cold water to the face for anyone even passingly familiar with the work of U2, with those records presenting an alternate path of the world of post-punk that U2 sprang from so wildly different as to effectively be from another planet. Bono largely followed suit, growing more and more interested in answering the nagging criticisms of U2 as fundamentally undanceable, music for the yearning heart and not for the body, and embodying a sense of profound sincerity that was largely going out of style. The rhythm section, meanwhile, were set upon classic rock, deepening a sense of rhythmic interplay that went beyond the song-oriented functionalism they’d focused on before. They were less interested in being a Ringo and wanting more to be a Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. Needless to say, these two desires clashed like thunderheads waging a war in darkening heaven.

So on were called Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, their by-now usual cohort, replacing a departing Jimmy Iovine. Iovine’s strengths in retrospect had always been in capturing the band as a live unit, the grandiosity and intimacy they could weave in turns whether it be in the seething fire-licked stone of Red Rocks or roaming the American heartland for Rattle And Hum. In a certain way, that transitional document of Live at Red Rocks could be seen as a precursor to their fixation on the mythic magic of America and its vastness. But Iovine’s ear was ultimately tuned most to their presence as a rock group, not as a sensitive band of experimentalists whose ideas often outstripped their capabilities. Eno and Lanois had already proven themselves as perhaps the only duo capable to extracting that fullness from the band, completing the circle the group could trace but not close themselves. And, given the dissension within the band over their two radically departing directions they wished to pursue, the experimentally-minded Eno and grounded, engineering-minded Lanois seemed once again the perfect pair to thread the needle and find where U2 existed in those dialectical forces once again.

There is, moments upon pressing play, a signifier that things are not the same. There roars a heavily distorted guitar, more like contained bursts of noise than any clear note, not unlike something Godflesh might put to tape. A martial beat, something but unknown to U2, builds behind. It feels perhaps that in the wake of working with Bowie, Eno may finally have pushed U2 from scattered dreamlike atmospherics into coherent avant-gardeism. U2 did after all begin their sessions in the same strange environs of Berlin as Bowie and Eno had in the ’70s, the period where Bowie famously dabbled in openly fascist imagery, dress and behavior, all in bizarre pursuit of the outer limits of rock. U2, Eno and Lanois arrived in Berlin under somewhat different circumstances, approaching the city not as the stern and rain-soaked Brutalist concrete masterwork of the Cold War, the entire post-war universe in miniature, the ruins of the Nazis redeveloped into the warring idols of communism versus capitalism wielded against an unwitting populace. Instead, for U2 and crew, the Berlin Wall had just fallen and the wounded halves of the nation united, an event most in the world viewed with optimism. As it turned out, as the boys decamped in a former SS ballroom-turned-studio, wafting through with the ghosts of fascist violence dancing on the floors, they found a Berlin that was not brimming with hope and unity but instead the very real scars of a nation and a people divided by forces outside of themselves and reunited by those very same forces. Germany as they experienced it was not a fruitful arthouse wonderland but instead a wounded world, the unhealed political and social scars of fascism crudely papered over by the occupation, itself once more papered over by a unity that was more a political pawn for the global forces of capitalism than a political or social reality of the people. This fracturing, ghosts upon ghosts in fierce concatenation, turned out to be fertile ground for those brutish industrial impulses, producing dance music from hell, the body as a source of movement writhing in pain, itself a kind of passion.

But then “Zoo Station” shifts gears. A melodic guitar enters, then equally melodic harmonized vocals. It sounds, bluntly, like U2. Slowly but surely, the industrialisms fade away to nothing, and all that remains is the U2 we have come to know from their previous trilogy of releases. It is not a bad song by any stretch, but as a signifier of wild change, it certainly underwhelms by its end.

If it were that simple, a shot of industrial music ideas fading back into the U2 we knew of earlier records, that story of the album would be far less exciting. It would truly be as many perceive it, the tail end of the classic era of the band as well as a nice little detour. But Achtung Baby, like The Unforgettable Fire before it, is a record that benefits from how riven the band and even the production staff were. The rest of the songs waver in this fashion across that line, sometimes a heavily effected guitar disrupting an otherwise standard song, other times an experimental approach to vocals laid against a shocking fragment. Songs like “One” feel like they would fit on a standard-sized follow-up to The Joshua Tree; “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” feels like a bright alt-rock anthem from the early days of Britpop; “The Fly” feels like a throbbing inverted cross. The excitement of Achtung Baby is not that it has one identity or another but instead that it carries both. It’s lack of resolve is precisely what makes it so shocking and compelling; you can hear a band at war with each other and at war with themselves, the folksy poeticism of Rattle And Hum internalized in the lyrics set against music that feels set to tear itself apart. The final sessions for the record were held in Dublin, the home base of the band, with further material seeming to drive home the fundamentals of the group rather than the experimentations encouraged by the ghosts of Berlin.

U2 weren’t brave enough, at least not yet, to embrace the psychedelic screaming of the melting head. That would come soon enough though; the experiments set upon here, received well, seemed to embolden the band. They began to solicit remixes of songs for the B-sides of their singles, sharing space with covers of classic rock songs such as “Paint It Black” and “Fortunate Son” as well as more angular discarded material hinting at the wildness yet to come. Compare this to the stories and widely beloved B-sides of The Joshua Tree, which include tracks such as “Luminous Times (Hold On To Love)” and “Wave of Sorrow (Birdland)” (not to mention “Beautiful Ghost/Introduction to Songs of Experience”, a William Blake-nodding track that would only be followed up on by a double album nearly 30 years later). What you find are two radically different images of the band simmering below the surface of the initially released material. The Joshua Tree‘s material trimmed from its earliest days as a planned double-album reveal a band fully immersed in the mystical and spiritual aspects of the band, a group clearly at the apex of their power within the style given how favorably comparable some of the B-sides are to that which made the album itself. Meanwhile, Achtung Baby‘s side works feel instead like sliding even deeper into the black hole, the band deconstructing themselves in three directions: a body music second life spawned from raves and the electronic edge of alternative and punk rock that began to emerge in earnest in the early ’90s, the ragged reinterpretation of classic rock that would come to bear within grunge like Pearl Jam and indie rock such as Archers of Loaf, as well as the hybridized U2-ification of both of these concepts alloyed to the main body of their established sound.

Achtung Baby appears in its entirety less like a radical detour for the group or even a cynical upending of the group’s trajectory thus far and instead an alternate second phase. The common thread of all of the sonics present here is the ramshackle rock and post-punk ideologies present in their initial EP and trilogy of records, extended into the common modes of the early ’90s. This runs counter in an important way to the common narrative of the increasing cynicism of the group following their perhaps overbearing sincerity. For one thing, very little of the material present on Achtung Baby comes across as lyrically or even sonically cynical. “One” and “Mysterious Ways” for instance are nothing if not the bleeding edge of sincerity, albeit focused more on romantic or sexual tensions rather than spiritual or political ones. Likewise the swirling affectedness of these pieces repeat the sentiment of U2 being resolutely a rock band, a sense that seemed to fade from The Unforgettable Fire onward as their approach became more atmospheric and abstract. On Achtung Baby, U2 are resolutely present and rooted, with even its experiments striking a tone of forced groundedness, the burst of industrial noise certainly not being even in the same universe as the blissed out shimmers of guitar present on their most recent previous releases. Achtung Baby thus becomes the first step of what would become a career-defining alternate branch of evolutionary history of the group, the wild and earthly and freaked out punky side contrasting their disciplined, abstract and spiritual aspects as what had once on their initial three records had been in union had by now become completely divided and self-segregated.

This division begun here seems to represent as well an inward division of the band that began to play out over the coming decades of the group’s life. The band certainly felt in some way or another that this was a cynical and arch turn, a seizing up of the tongue-in-cheek iconoclast motives of punk rock in juxtaposition to the equally punk sense of pure sincerity. This alternate path would see them developing their identity further and further along those lines, pushing deeper and deeper into the depths of ironic detachment and self-defacement over the coming trilogy of studio albums and ultimately five-record set when you include side releases. But so too would they set seemingly an inner pendulum careening the other direction. While to the ears Achtung Baby sounds not particularly at war with U2’s history up to this point but instead both a development of certain aspects of their more devoutly mystical and spiritual side alloyed again against the post-punk brashness of their earliest trilogy, the band seemed to view it as precisely the opposite. It is precisely here that we can pinpoint the moment of U2’s both ascent and unravelling began. Achtung Baby becomes in many ways the first of an ever-intensifying series of attempts to undo the perceived damage their quintessential golden age wrought, a swing which would see them once again reactionarily undo in the 2000s, whereupon the final solidification of U2’s public image as that of the apotheosis of what groups like Coldplay would yearn to be would suddenly erupt into beginning. Achtung Baby may not sound anything like “Walk On” or “Vertigo” but the decisions and directionalities of its birth are what would one day give birth to it. It is because of this that it is precisely here that our narrative and critical understanding of U2’s catalog begins to diverge from the commonly accepted narrative. Achtung Baby was not the end of the classic era nor even of the mandatory albums of the band; it was the beginning of something far stranger.

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