Island Records, 1991
REVIEW BY: Michael R. Smith
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/16/2007
Now we’re getting somewhere. No list of the best albums of all time would be complete without including U2’s seventh release, Achtung Baby.
Immaculately produced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, this album presented a new sound for the 90s. At the time, it was seen as a significant departure for U2, so much so that some of the band’s members were hesitant at this radical change in direction. Still, U2 wouldn’t be U2 without a sense of adventure and daring. The trick was in how to tinker with their own formula without alienating their core audience and fan base.
The two most extreme cases that veer dangerously close to techno territory are “Zoo Station” and “The Fly.” These two tracks are the linchpins to the entire album and help set the tone. With elements of distortion and plenty of twists and turns, they presented radio stations with a dilemma when they were first released. To say these two songs came as a shock to many listeners would be an understatement.
Neither one of these tracks made it to the Top 40, but then again, that format was far too conservative to house such gross monstrosities anyway. Radio may not have known what to do with the new and improved U2, but U2’s true blue fans certainly did. They couldn’t get enough of Achtung Baby and bought enough copies to bring U2 back to the top spot of the album chart.
There were two singles from Achtung Baby that did become successful, even if they were paler in comparison. As the tamer choice, “Mysterious Ways” was just as catchy and garnered plenty of airplay both on radio and MTV. It also contained the great line, “If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel / on your knees, boy.” By contrast, the tired sounding “One” became the ballad that resonated the most with a lot of people, though I’ve always had a hard time liking it. I just find the lyrics on that song as somewhat trite and the music to be on the dull side. In doing research for this review, I discovered that it was the one song that all the members of U2 could agree on when putting the album together.
For whatever reason, there were a few other noteworthy tracks on Achtung Baby that received hardly any recognition. The ballad that pulled at my heartstrings a lot more than “One” did was “So Cruel,” and the ambient feel of “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World” was also a nice touch. When it comes to the preponderance of long song titles, they not only tend to sound alike, but they have the tendency to get all mixed up in one’s mind: “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” - they all just kind of blend together. And, as is the case with most U2 albums, the last few songs are also the least memorable.
Maintaining a level of consistency and urgency throughout continues to be U2’s primary challenge, but more often than not Achtung Baby succeeds more for its spirit than anything else.