I wish I could make some sort of hopelessly melodramatic statement about the first time I heard 'The Fly,' the lead single from U2's 1991 masterwork Achtung Baby. The truth, however, is a hell of a lot less sexy.
As a moderately (at most) adventurous 19-year-old -- with the somewhat tentative taste in music to match -- I kind of didn't know what to make of the new sonic territory U2 was suddenly mining in our great season of Nevermind, a.k.a. late '91. I knew I liked Adam Clayton's bouncy bass line on 'The Fly,' though. And I thought the song's video was pretty fun in all its let's-rock-it simplicity. (Still do, in fact.)
The '80s were deep in the rear view mirror by this point, and with them went U2's suffocating pomposity. Good riddance. The band's 1988 documentary Rattle And Hum, full as it was of epic concert sequences, didn't exactly portray the group as a bunch of down-to-earth lads, nor did it do much to dispel the increasingly popular view of Bono as rock's most insufferably humor-deficient frontman. U2's ardent earnestness had painted them into a corner.
What's a superstar band to do once it's:
- Laid down a long day's drive worth of bulletproof songs over the past decade...
- Iconically waved a white flag at a bunch of skiers amid a Rocky Mountain rainstorm...
- Had the 'Rock's Hottest Ticket' tag slapped on it by that old tastemaker, Time...
- Taken self-seriousness to new depths?
There was really only one true path for the band to follow:
- Set the most exciting batch of songs of its career to tape...
- Give the resulting album a jokey name to mask all its darkly unsettling music...
- Don sunglasses and leather...
- Finally act like they're having a good time.
I still pick up a lot of records, but few are nostalgic acquisitions. Writing and editing for Brandracket plays right into my ongoing inclination to seek out young bands worth my time (and what remains of my hearing). I'm talking about the Yucks, Weekends, and Creepoids of the world, and while we're at it, the Big Troubles, Horse Marriages, and Lightouts. Not exactly household names (yet). Then again, nobody outside of Dublin in 1979 had heard of this band with a two-character name that reminded some of a German submarine.
So, I went all-in for the so-called Super Deluxe 20th Anniversary Edition of Achtung Baby a couple months ago -- an indulgent gift to myself for my recent 40th birthday. In this case, I am the target demographic.
Few artistic reinventions have been as successful as U2's between 1989-91. Their leap from frowny-faced, black-and-white-portrayed galvanizers of strident high school and college kids the world over, to funtime-loving, color-portrayed messengers of groove with a fusillade of televisions backing them up...it was all a calculated risk. But it completely worked.
The main reason it completely worked, of course, is the fact that Achtung Baby quickly became one of the monster records of its era. And this new big-ass monument of a boxed set -- six CDs, four DVDs, a 12”x12” hardback book full of essays and striking Anton Corbijn photography; all that's missing is one of those Achtung Baby condoms sold at the merch booth on the ensuing Zoo TV tour -- reinforces this in spades. Achtung Baby has aged better and sounds fresher than anything else from the near-endless smorgasbord of early '90s rock. It's still a monster record -- of any era.
Achtung Baby was the first U2 record you could dance to. Achtung Baby was the first U2 record you could have sex to. (Unless you've ever been able to properly get busy to 'Sunday Bloody Sunday' or 'Bullet The Bullet Sky.' Then you are a very special individual indeed. Kudos.) Hell, there are enough oral sex and masturbation references in Bono's early '90s lyrics to make you think he was quietly working on spec for some North Hollywood porn studio.
But those are just the cheap thrills. Beyond Clayton and Larry Mullen's buoyant rhythms, beyond Edge's insistent guitar work -- industrial-inspired riffs here ('Zoo Station,' 'The Fly'), menacing leads there ('Until The End Of The World,' 'Acrobat'), brilliance everywhere -- and even beyond the album's true X-factor of Daniel Lanois' genius production, it's the songs themselves on Achtung Baby that have kept it in regular rotation for me over the last 20 years.
Sometimes it's also the album's song cycle. As opening salvos go, it's tough to top 'Zoo Station.' Any record that begins with (what's always sounded to me like) an oncoming subway train and an opening lyric as heroically intrepid as 'I'm ready for the laughing gas' has my attention right off the bat.
On the heels of 'Zoo Station,' 'Even Better Than The Real Thing' suckers you into thinking you're in for a 12-track dance party. Not so fast, John Q. Ibiza.
I've probably heard 'One' a thousand times by now (perhaps you have as well), and it never goes out of style. Interpret it however you want -- it's about a failed relationship; it's about a broken family; it's about world peace; it's about the AIDS pandemic; it's about dressing up in drag to drive around snowy Berlin in a Trabant -- but it's the song that basically saved U2's life when they were flailing in the earliest days of recording what eventually became Achtung Baby.
If one of U2's swiftest moves in the '90s was learning how to write phenomenal songs that weren't anthems, there's no sharper example than 'Until The End Of The World.' Linked with 'Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses' -- the opening chords of which sound as if they were recorded amid a Yellowstone blizzard; this is a good thing -- and the slow-creeping betrayal of 'So Cruel,' the song is the linchpin of the first of Achtung Baby's pair of notoriously bleak segments. Of course, this is bleakness you can nod your head to (or even shake your ass to, if you're the ass-shaking sort): Edge's riff on 'Until' in particular is a rhythmic force of nature.
Things lighten up a spell once 'The Fly,' one of U2's most unfairly brushed-aside songs, crashes in to begin the album's second half. What do you get when you meld a completely rad guitar riff, a touch of baggy Madchester in the backbeat, and 'Every artist is a cannibal / Every poet is a thief / All kill their inspiration / And sing about the grief'? Probably my favorite U2 song of all. (Isn't that funny? I don't think so. But if you do, you're not the first.)
The good-time head-fakes continue with dancetacular 'Mysterious Ways' through 'Ultra Violet (Light My Way),' with the alluringly lazy 'Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World' wedged in between (perhaps the song on the record that's best-served by Lanois' deft production). 'Ultra Violet,' meanwhile, is Achtung Baby's last best hopeful moment, all the way down to Bono's uncharacteristic flurry of 'baby baby baby's in the third verse. It's that old uplifting U2 magic all over again...only nobody ever misinterpreted this one to be a rebel song.
In fact, if you were to quit now, you might even have yourself a kind of happy ending. But such a tidy little wrap-up isn't Achtung Baby's aspiration, something that's abundantly clear with the twinkill darkhorse shithammer of 'Acrobat' and 'Love Is Blindness' that closes the album, each featuring searing guitar by Edge. The first is a formidable ode to the wonders of hypocrisy; the second, a meditation on love as a disability not to be lived without. Not exactly lullaby material.
Perhaps the U2 of the '90s -- disco balls, belly dancers, crank-calling the White House from the stadium stage every night, whatever all that silly PopMart business was about -- wasn't so zany after all?
Here's to acting like you're having a good time. ~ Charles Hodgkins