U2 – Achtung Baby (1991): Review

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Produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno
Label – Island

The significant result of U2’s over reaching, soaked in American musical iconography, 1988 double album epic (“Rattle And Hum”), was that the band were desperate to escape from its clutches. Although, decent enough, in conceptual terms it was quite simply a record from four Irish new wavers trying to be something they weren’t, and although dedicated to mirror heroes from their past, failed to capitalize on the individualistic glory of “The Joshua Tree”. “Achtung Baby” is very much an album inspired by German re-unification, European industrial music and electronic dance music. Additionally, Bono and the band wanted to move away from the earnest preaching that had dominated both their live performance and media persona of the preceding three years. Setting camp in Hansa studios, Berlin, along with producer Daniel Lanois and artistic architect Brian Eno, the band pursued a new direction that incorporated hints of acid house and “baggy” dance pop, krautrock and a return to stark, atmospheric post punk.

According to legend, the Berlin sessions almost broke the band up, with creative tensions, bad accommodation, and outdated recording equipment all contributing to a very miserable and largely unproductive experience. Maybe a saving grace was that they returned with an outstanding song, “One”, which in more ways than one was a vital composition that not only became a recognized classic, but gave the band the impetus to reconvene at a later date. Eno was critical in his undertaking and guidance, impressing on the notion that the band should immediately remove anything that sounded remotely like U2. It worked, and the addition of machine rhythms allied with electronic effects adds a refreshing palette for Bono’s vocals, and The Edge’s experiments with feedback and dissonant guitar noises.

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“Zoo Station”, the album’s opener is an astonishing head rush of crunching, pummeling beats and machine splutter, as Bono’s detached voice melds in with “I’m ready for the shuffle, ready for the deal, ready to let go of the steering wheel, I’m ready for the crush.” “Even Better Than The Real Thing” is squarely aimed at chart recognition, underpinned by some of The Edge’s most versatile experimentation of chopping slabs of rhythm guitar allied with heavily echoed lead passages. “One” transcends almost anything they had previously released, a persuasively tender break up ballad, passionately delivered by the singer, sympathetically backed by the band’s gentle colouring. Bono’s writing is often darker than ever before, and this forms an interesting paradox with the music, which is possibly the most commercially accessible the band had released. A typical result, is the “farewell gift to Roy Orbison” (“So Cruel”), which trawls all the great male pop heartache files for a fitting tribute to one of his idols. “The Fly” is a courageous, somewhat bizarre lead off promotional single, in that its falsetto and spoken word chorus is so intriguingly contrary to anything the band had ever released before. Whilst previous releases had viewed the world through embattled symbolism, the bombs, bullets, war strewn victims and scorched landscape, “Achtung Baby” is more personal, introspective, complex and an ambitious examination of the darker side of the human response.

More uncompromising, less circumspect, and yet still totally accessible to casual listeners, “Achtung Baby” opens up a sonic world that’s disorienting, affecting and vital in equal measure.

9/10

Track Rating
1 – Zoo Station (9)
2 – Even Better Than The Real Thing (9)
3 – One (10)
4 – Until The End Of The World (9)
5 – Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses (9)
6 – So Cruel (9)
7 – The Fly (9)
8 – Mysterious Ways (8)
9 – Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World (8)
10 – Ultra Violet (Light My Way) (7)
11 – Acrobat (7)
12 – Love Is Blindness (8)

U2 – Boy (1980): Review (7/10)

U2 – October (1981): Review (5/10)

U2 – War (1983): Review (8/10)

U2 – The Unforgettable Fire (1984): Review (8/10)

U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987): Review (9/10)

U2 – Rattle And Hum (1988): Review (7/10)

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31 responses to “U2 – Achtung Baby (1991): Review

  1. There were definitely a bunch of great tracks on here but don’t think I ever owned it, in any format.

    • Yeah, I’d like to know who decides the running order (I believe it was The Edge on this one), because they always load the best at the the top of the order.

  2. Great review. This and Joshua Tree are the two I’m most familiar with. A really pretty great album, though I believe it would have been stronger had they cut 2 tracks from the end (those you’ve actually awarded 7s).

    • Yeah the last two or three songs restrain me from giving it a 10. I agree that in my trawl through all the U2 albums up to this one, “The Joshua Tree” and this one are their best IMO. Thanks!

  3. In which U2 lose the plot. Only just pipped to the post by War as the worst album of the vinyl era. Sorry Hackskeptic. Like dads who try to trendify themselves, a little embarrassing. Roll on your look at Pop.

    • Speak to most U2 fans and I think you’d get a different answer. As I’ve gone through each album chronologically, I can understand the appeal of many of the albums they’ve released. The fact that they’ve released a pretty consistent body of work is admirable.

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