These days U2 cop a lot of stick. That’s mostly because their recent output has been bloated. However, there was a time (in fact there were several times) when U2 were untouchable. Achtung Baby perfectly summarised the weirdness of life in Europe in the early nineties. It gave voice to the anxiety of a generation now staring out at the maw of post-capitalism. After the dot-com bubble, Iraq, Facebook, the Financial crash, twerking, Tinder, Trump, after the many tragic and bizarre hallmarks of our time, it is worth looking back at U2’s big comeback.
U2 were always crystal clear in their songwriting. Bono deployed metaphor and double-meaning extensively but the emotion of the piece was never in doubt. The indecipherable industrial racket that opens the album was unlike anything that U2 had written. It’s hardly even a song really. Bono sings with great excitement about arriving somewhere he can start anew. But is he kidding? Is he genuine? Is it a joke? The listener is left none -the-wiser.
It isn’t until ‘Even Better Than the Real Thing’ charts sky-rocketing sex with a drag queen (and/or robots) that it becomes clear that this is not the U2 who recorded Joshua Tree. It is the sound of four men chopping it down, as Bono famously put it. The core components of what makes U2 tick are still present, but this is a very different machine.
U2 had built a reputation as nice boys. Bono was the love stricken lad who still hadn’t found what he was looking for. They were perceived as clean cut and slightly corny. Their world-view was brave, uplifting and naive. They viewed political and personal issues through the same wide screen lens. This was music perfectly suited to the 80s. The Soviets were the bad guys. We were the good guys.
However as U2 ended their Lovetown Tour in 89, they found themselves slipping towards irrelevance. The Berlin Wall was falling. Hip-hop, euro dance and Madchester ruled the airwaves. The Cold War was over, and gone with it the certainty that comes from a common enemy. These were very uncertain times and wide-eyed naivety wasn’t going to cut it.
They headed to Berlin. It was where the new world was being created. Days of frustration in recording sessions got them nowhere. Finding a new voice is hard, bone-breakingly hard, and U2 were on the verge of splitting up. It was then that Edge began jamming out a bluesy riff, and ‘One’ was born.
As compelling and lovely as it is, ‘One’ feels odd on the album. AB is not an album with many lighter in the air moments. ‘Mysterious Ways’ is surely the best song. Brian Eno co-produced on AB and it’s particularly felt here. The tribal polyrhytmn is almost exactly like that found on the Eno produced ‘Once in a Lifetime’. Edge is at his career best. The characteristic shimmering echo of songs like ‘Pride’ are replaced by a scuzzy, metallic growl. The riff on ‘Mysterious Ways’ is fun and funky in a way U2 have never been since, and even better is ‘The Fly’, a hulking mammoth of post-rock sleeze.
However what I particularly love on this collection are the album tracks, where the band divert their gaze away from the pop charts altogether. ‘So Cruel’ is my favourite U2 song. It’s poetic and propulsive, and tragic too. It’s so rare to be truly moved by a song, but this one is so accurate in it’s depiction of longing, jealousy and mental illness.
U2 may not be trendy anymore. It’s debatable if they ever were. However, there is no doubting the sheer strength of song writing and emotional nuance of this piece. After all these years, Achtung Baby is still an adventure.