U2’s Achtung Baby, twenty years on

Having grown up watching MTV, I developed a love for U2 and Bono through the tube. 

Not the self-righteous specimen with the ubiquitous sunglasses who was caught getting handsy with girls half his age on a yacht, but the pale, baby-faced young Dubliner with the wild black hair and a voice that wailed with all the earnest fervor and ecstasy of a heartbroken gospel singer at a seedy speakeasy.

U2 to me was The Edge with his relentless, driving guitar and Bono pouring his very self into the piercing, raw lyrics about war and injustice.

In 11th grade, when my friend Amit offered to lend me the new U2 CD, I couldn’t wait to get it home and listen to it. (And also “borrow” a 90 minute blank tape from my mother’s stash for use with clients and dub the thing on the family tape deck). 

The new album had a strange name – Achtung Baby – the German for “attention” coupled with the cliché Hollywood pet name, which connoted for me both Nazi imagery and American excess. (“Achtung” is what those SS men must have shouted at my grandmother when the farmer whose barn she was hiding in gave her up.) How odd.

The cover was a colorful collage that looked nothing at all like any of the band’s previous covers. I sat through French class in a daze, counting the minutes until I could put the damn thing in our CD player in the living room.

I finally got home and fed the CD to the player, turned up the volume on the tuner, and waited. A snaggle-tooth saw-edged electric guitar, groaning, crushing machine noises. A pause. Again, the grunting guitar and the clash of steel on steel, the clunky thunk of a saucepan for percussion. Had they recorded this work in an old munitions factory? Then Bono’s voice— distant, distorted, cold. Jesus. He wasn’t kidding about the laughing gas. What the holy hell was this?

I listened to the whole thing. It left me… mildly irritated. I hated it. But I taped myself a copy anyway.

The next day, I sat next to Amit in French class and gave him back the CD.

“Well?” he said, “What do you think?” 

“I think I kind of hate it. It’s… I don’t know. It’s weird.”

“Listen to it again. It’ll grow on you.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

I went home and put the album on the little tape deck in my room, borrowed from my piano teacher. I listened to it again. And again. And again. I began to realize that I really hated the way the album disappointed my own ideas about what a U2 album should be. I was frustrated with its unfamiliarity and strangeness. And I realized I had to listen to this strange thing called Achtung Baby with fresh ears, as though I was listening to a new album by a completely different band.

Eventually, I grew to relish the crunch of metal on metal, the crushing gears, the peculiar humanoid rhythm of machines. The oddly dissonant noises became music. I still bristle with anticipation when I hear those distorted machine grunts at the start of “Zoo Station.”

Twenty years on, the album, for me, has withstood the test of time. Well, half of it has. I still love “Zoo Station” with its optimistic (?) machine futurism (“Time is a train/Makes the future the past/Leaves you standing in the station/Your face pressed up against the glass”).

The same goes for “Even Better than the Real Thing” with its sleazy wink at Western commercialism, “Love Is Blindness” with its quiet sinister gloom. There’s a dark, desperate edge to songs like “Until the End of the World,” “So Cruel,” and “The Fly.”

Every image of love is tainted by the contradictory whiff of disappointment, destruction, and despair (“The men who love you, you hate the most/They pass right through you like a ghost/They look for you, but your spirit is in the air/Baby, you’re nowhere”).

The album carries with it the metallic bitterness of promises broken, the tarnished silver currencies of democracy, economic prosperity, equality, as fleeting and equivocal to the disenfranchised residents of the east as the relationships Bono sings about.

It’s people trying desperately to cope with the future in a brand new present, the colorful, frenetic chaos of Western freedom grinding up against the grey rigidity of their collapsed totalitarian past: “It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky/The universe exploding ‘cos-a one man’s lie/Look I gotta go/Yeah, I’m running outta change/There’s a lot of things /If I could I’d rearrange.” It’s the cynicism, confusion, and emptiness that remains when totalitarianism dies, the death of belief itself: “And I’d join the movement/If there was one I could believe in/Yeah I’d break bread and wine/If there was a church I could receive in/‘Cos I need it now.”

On the other hand, once a heartfelt ballad for the reunification of Germany, “One” has become a sappy, overwrought cliché, having been covered by pop marionettes prone to melismatic excess.

While it begins auspiciously enough, “Light My Way” quickly morphs into Bono at his crooning lounge singer worst. Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World is all but unlistenable with its facile images and treacly pop chorus (as if anyone with a radio hadn’t had their fill of the same insipid line from Bryan Adams in the ’80s). And, for Pete’s sake, I have absolutely no desire to determine who, exactly, will ride Bono’s wild horses, nor who will drown in his blue sea. (A sea of $300 Edun jeans, self-righteous do-goodery, and media over-exposure?)

Still, Achtung Baby marks a musical turning point in my mind. I recently listened to my favorite songs from the album while riding the train. I remembered the epiphany it was for me back then, after my initial frustration—the way it introduced me to this thing called “industrial,” the way it marked a new era for the band. 

As I focused on some of Bono’s more sentimental lyrics, I wondered what the album would have sounded like if the words were written and sung by someone else, like Ian Astbury from The Cult, or Nick Cave. But no matter. Remember when the wall came down? Achtung Baby is the real thing (even better than the real thing?), and I still love it.