U2 was for many years, the most influential and powerful artist in my life. Even if I may have leaned towards other acts more in a musical sense, there was a depth and meaning to their lyrics that connected with me in a way that I never quite experienced with my other favorite performers. By 1991, they were several years past the dominance of “The Joshua Tree”, and were trending towards a more electronic and experimental sound. While I fully understood and applauded their aspiration to move forward, I knew this was likely going to create some separation for me as a fan, particularly in combination with my ongoing life transformation into fully responsible adulthood. Thankfully, they released what I consider to be their last great album before we both moved forward in life. “Achtung Baby” was sprinkled with a healthy mix of increased production and electronic distortion, but within this transformation were some amazing songs, including a song I would list in my top ten of all time tracks, along with another that wasn’t too much further behind. As much as I have always admired the unity and solidarity, this album and even the phenomenal song “One” arose from one of the most dysfunctional moments in their history, as they were also conflicted about the musical and artistic direction of the band. In case you have ever wondered, “Achtung” loosely means “Attention!” in German, and it was in Germany where they started this journey to record this album, trying to build on the mood of a reuniting and healing country. They ended up finishing the record in Ireland, and through all of the turmoil, they finished up with what is now album #124 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
I will end today’s blog by addressing my two favorites on the record, but the entire record was among their best creations. “Zoo Station” and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” kick things off and they let you know how much they have moved forward since the late 1980s; yet both are good attention getters to open the record. “Until The End of the World” is in the same vein, and the guitar work from the Edge on this song is unique and enveloping. Adam Clayton is the least acclaimed member of the band, but his bass work on this song and elsewhere on this record is really strong.
“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is almost too sweet, but it is a signature Bono song, dramatic and compelling all at once. With “The Fly”, we see the alter ego of Bono emerge, as the over-the-top eccentric rock star hidden behind oversized sunglasses and an equally oversized personality. The hits keep coming with “Mysterious Ways”, featuring one of the Edge’s funkiest guitar grooves, and the percussion and beat on this song is one of their very best ever. Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton truly carry their weight on this song, more so than on any previous U2 album.
I don’t think any other vocalist besides Bono would be capable of writing a song like “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World”, and if someone else did, they certainly couldn’t perform it with the same magnitude of authenticity and charisma. Is it a bit ridiculous? Absolutely, but he had (and still has) the star power and vocal range to back it up as if he truly could reach around the world.
The last three tracks don’t capture me quite the same way, so I will proceed to the two defining songs of the album for me. One of them was a massive hit, the other was not even released as a single. Let’s start there… “So Cruel” is a gorgeous and haunting melody, and just as I suspected, it was originally written as an acoustic track that Daniel Lanois and the band reshaped into an electronic masterpiece. Bono’s soaring falsettos tell the story of a relationship jolting from ecstasy to agony. The imagery of the lyrics is stunning, and in classic U2 fashion, it builds power and emotion from a modest starting point, concluding with breathtaking power. At their best, no other band was still capable of delivering a song like this.
As good as “So Cruel” is, my highest praise is reserved for “One”. Amongst their most played songs ever, both on air and in concert, this song impacts me like few others. A mix of band disharmony and a variety of conflicting issues among friends and family, “One” delivers a blend of music and words like very few songs I have ever known before. In simple terms, if that is possible, it addresses the reality we have all experienced of unity and division within the closest and most intimate of relationships. Listening to this song, we are confronted with the reality of the imperfection of any relationship, and the overwhelming and consuming hold they have on our lives. During the course of one song, we face pain, abandonment, regret, pragmatism, curiosity, hope, and finally, the encouraging words of enduring love. Combined with a simple and stunningly beautiful chord progression, augmented by the rhythm section and magical production of Lanois, Bono gives us a gift we can never give back, and never have to. There is nothing more I can say about this album or this song, so I will lean on some of the lyrics to say it for me.
“Have you come here for forgiveness, Have you come to raise the dead?”
“Have you come here to play Jesus, to the lepers in your head?”
“One love, One blood, One life, you got to do what you should…”
“One life, with each other, sisters, brothers…”
“One life, but we’re not the same, We get to carry each other, carry each other… One… One.”