U2: A Glance Back at Achtung Baby 15 Years After
(Repost from Carnal Reason with two comments also reposted)
In 1991, 3 years after the release of U2’s fine-but-over-hyped “Rattle and Hum” — my God, U2’s “Exile on Main Street”, absurd — I was churning with anticipation of what the masterful Irish quartet would do next.
There are a lot of train songs out there, but none as mesmerizing, none that start an album with a shroud of rock-n-roll fog, like “Zoo Station”. A thunderous churn that draws you in, and then I’m ready, I’m ready for the laughing gas, I’m ready for what’s next, … I ready for the shuffle, ready for the deal, ready to let go of the steering wheel, I’m ready — for the crush. But then Bono’s echoing voice reassures you, as you leave the mountain tunnel and enter the station, It’s alright, it’s alright, it’s alright, hey baby … it’s alright. But it ain’t alright, there’s no relief, just the churning guitars and rhythm section, and your face pressed up against the glass. At this zoo station, as in the dream sequence early in Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries, the analog clocks have no hands to indicate the time.
Track two: “Even Better Than the Real Thing”. Here Bono’s little love poem becomes a mere distraction. Adam, Larry and and Edge pull this train out of the station, swaying for balance, before Edge takes it up to full throttle with the fastest rhythm guitar right hand in planetary history. But somehow the ride quiets down, and from the softness emerges an Edge slide guitar solo that sways, spins and whiplashes the listener — then drums, bass, and rhythm guitars build to another crescendo.
Where did they get that sound? I’ll tell you where: if you’ve got Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois producing your record, it’s not just four mates meeting the task of getting back on track after “Rattle and Hum”. Between them, Eno and Lanois have the best record producer resumes of the last thirty years.
Track three: “One”. Great message, great hit single, but more overworked than “Freebird”. Put it in the vault for a while.
Track four: “Until the End of the World”. Now we’re back on track, but Larry makes it clear from the beginning were entering a dark forest, una selva oscura, and your baby’s no help. We’re still havin’ fun, eatin’ the food, drinking the wine, except you [baby], you were talkin’ about the end of the world. While Bono buries his head in his notebook, scribbling end-of-relationship poetry, Edge and crew bring this train out of the forest to our destination, the deep blue Mediterranean.
Track five: “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”. As the artfully synthesized breaks screech to a halt, there’s no silence, rather distortion-heavy waves crashing into a blinding white beach. And on the beach stands a lone poet with a broken heart, who has finally found his voice. You’re dangerous, cause your honest. You’re dangerous, you don’t know what you want. Well you left my heart, empty as a vacant lot, for any, spirit to haunt. … You’re an accident, waiting to happen. You’re a piece of glass, left in a beach. …. And the lyrics just keep getting better. Then Bono shows what he can do with those pipes and the waves are ringing, not crashing. Next a musical bridge dream sequence and one final grand chorus where I can’t taste the saltwater kisses Bono can’t leave behind. And enough outta me. Almost.
In “So Cruel” I’m only hanging on to this damn life raft only to watch you go down, my love. The last time that happened was when Neil Young took his baby down by the river to shoot her, shoot her dead. Love like that does not surface in rock poetry every day.
But enough talking about a great record; just go turn up the volume and give it a spin.
U2 hasn’t made their “Exile on Main Street” — yet. Maybe nobody ever will make another “Exile” and survive to talk about it. And U2 are survivors. With “Achtung Baby”, U2 moved from great to timeless. Maybe “Achtung Baby” is their “Let it Bleed”. Just remember, she’s a piece of glass, left in a beach; love is blindness; and you can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.
And fade to black.
1. John K. Dooley said:
Rock music is so dead, and U2 is just another shovel load thrown into the grave. If I didn’t believe there weren’t already too many laws on the books I’d advocate for a moratorium on guitar bands.
The twilight of rock music was the last rays of the setting of Elvis……Costello last in the 80’s.
Rock music R.I. P.
Last one out the door lift the needle off the turn table.
2. Paullinator said:
I honestly believe that they could have released Achtung Baby as a single — with only the first song as the album — and I might have been just as happy. Zoo Station can be played endlessly clickity clack down the tracks for all I care (something that Paco Malo showed me when he refused to play anything else but that song over and over for an entire year). Still, I’m glad to have the imagery of saltwater kisses (my favorite phase on the disc) and the passionate worship of love that U2 served up for us in the remaining songs. (damn, I made myself gag)
Technical point/question : Did Edge really have “fastest rhythm guitar right hand in planetary history” or was that a mastery of guitar processor “toys”. I think the latter.
With respect to with Mr Dooley’s comments, I almost agree that Elvis Costello killed rock and roll when he created the less than zero banality of albums like Imperial Bedroom and so on. But aside from this chuckle about EC’s derailment, I can’t see spending any time arguing further the point of whether or not rock and roll is dead. There cannot be too many greater years for rock than 1977-1979 when Elvis released My Aim is True and This Year’s Model (see also releases by Talking Heads, Ramones, Sex Pistols, the Clash, and so many others) there’s too much ground breaking R&R history since the 80s to ignore… (see F. Black, Cobain, Veder….)
Rock and roll doesn’t die. It “steals” away into the night.