How do you follow a landmark album of the 80s? With a landmark album of the 90s of course. In 1987 The Joshua Tree made U2 superstars, with its mix of painfully earnest themes and grand, expansive sound. After trying to repeat that success by taking the Americana angle to its nth degree on its follow up, the scatter-brained Rattle & Hum, they decided the only way to avoid musical stagnation was to go away and, as Bono put it, “dream it all up again.” The result was a dark, danceable, unabashedly kitschy record; Achtung Baby was the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree for good.
Opening track ‘Zoo Station’ acts as U2 mark-II’s manifesto. “I’m ready for the laughing gas”, Bono howls, his once preachy bellow now distorted and fuzzy, “I’m ready to let go of the steering wheel”. With its grinding guitars and industrial beat, the song introduces listeners to the Zoo-era U2, a leather clad, wearing-sunglasses-indoors group of men who were ready to party, and do the most un-U2 of things – occasionally laugh at themselves.
Singles ‘Even Better Than The Real Thing’, ‘Mysterious Ways’ and ‘The Fly’ carry on in a similar vein: funky, futuristic pop tunes steeped in swagger and irony that showcase Bono’s newfound embracement of his rockstar image. ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses’: a slow-burning torch song that’s as bitter as it is sweet, and mega-hit ‘One’ are about the only remnants of The Joshua Tree’s epic formula, with the rest of the songs leaning towards the trashy and throwaway.
The most deeply personal and melancholy record in the band’s canon, Achtung Baby is one of the few albums that manages to make you want to dance and mope at the same time; ‘Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World’ is the only light and breezy track here. The album’s climax, the closing trio of ‘Ultraviolet’, ‘Acrobat’ and ‘Love Is Blindness’, is one of the most spectacular in pop music, and serves to make sure the album doesn’t end on a happy note: they’re all ruminations on failed relationships inspired by The Edge’s personal life.
Achtung Baby gave the band their much-needed second wind, as well as a return to critical (and monumental commercial) success, and still stands as their creative high-water mark, an era-defining snapshot of the early 90s.