For the first 10 years of its career, U2 was precisely the monolithic rock band the world needed. The Cold War was raging, Africa was starving, and pop stars were speaking out. It was a time for flag-waving and pontificating. Bono was ready for duty.
But then the world changed. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, politics got murkier, and the future took on new types of uncertainty. At the same time, dance music and alternative rock were making dinosaurs of pop’s old guard — the ranks of which U2 had seemed determined to join with 1988’s album-film combo Rattle and Hum.
U2 sidestepped obsolescence with Achtung Baby, released 25 years ago today on Nov. 18, 1991. Produced by longtime collaborators Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, the album was a sonic shift coupled with a change of character. Suddenly, rock’s most strident group was getting down with Euro-sexy dance beats and distorted guitars. Bono morphed from mulleted cowboy hero to mischievous trickster, and the group verged on cool — not just popular — for the first time ever.
Even so, the foursome still maintained many of their sonic hallmarks. A good example is lead single “The Fly,” one of the songs born in Berlin, where the band initiated sessions that ultimately wrapped in Dublin. In the verses, Bono sings with atypical suspicion about friendship, honesty, and originality, while the Edge co-signs his cynicism with grimy riffage. Then the chorus hits, and it’s classic U2 uplift. “We shine like a burning star,” Bono sings in glorious falsetto, like there’s something noble, even beautiful, about man’s shortcomings.
The song “The Fly” birthed the character The Fly, who Bono played in black leather and wraparound shades throughout the 1992-93 Zoo TV Tour. On a stage loaded with television screens, U2 riffed on media saturation and rock n’ roll excess, amping up the looseness and humor only hinted at on Achtung Baby. As Bono has said, the record is actually fairly dark, what with its songs about deteriorating relationships, some inspired by the Edge’s unraveling marriage. But in the absence of canyon-filling guitar chime and lyrics about mountains and fields, the music feels lighter. It doesn’t hurt that Bono begins the album by professing, through a layer of vocal effects, “I’m ready for the laughing gas.”
On songs like “So Cruel” and the unhappy finale “Love Is Blindness,” U2 forget big issues and focus on the little wars lovers wage. There are few absolute truths on Achtung Baby. On the single “Even Better than the Real Thing,” Bono flips an old Coke slogan to praise artifice in a way that U2 circa Live Aid never would have. The flamboyance and arrogance in the performance matches the sentiment. The groove doesn’t quite match the freaky dance-rock then emerging from Manchester’s “Madchester” scene, but this is hedonism U2-style.
A true highlight of U2’s catalog is “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” a sparkling lover’s plea that presents Bono as refreshingly fragile. And then there’s the centerpiece, “One,” an all-in monster ballad whose brilliance lies in its ability to mean many things. It’s about German reunification, U2 overcoming internal tensions, and lovers saying nasty things to each other, depending on what interviews you read.
A similar ambiguity shapes “Until the End of the World.” It’s apparently about Jesus and Judas, and yet the band hardly treats this booming rocker like a Bible story. They mix up sex and religion even more effectively on “Mysterious Ways,” which reached No. 9 on the Hot 100, becoming the disc’s biggest hit. It’s U2 getting funky and, with that line about dropping to your knees to achieve transcendence, a little dirty.
Achtung Baby bought U2 another decade of relevance, and to its credit, the group used that time to push even further against expectations. If experimentation overshadowed songwriting on Zooropa and Pop — the latter promoted under a golden arch on the cheeky PopMart Tour — U2 had nevertheless found an unlikely new niche as costumed electro-rock satirists.
Then the world changed again, and fans needed U2 with the earnestness and electric guitars of 1987. All That You Can’t Leave Behind arrived nearly a year before 9/11, but songs like “Walk On” and “Beautiful Day” took on extra meaning after the attacks. Bono was once again the man for his place and time.
With humanity once again at a critical juncture, Bono, Edge, Larry, and Adam get another shot to reinvent themselves and try to throw their arms around the world. Gee, think they’ll take it?