"We formed bands at 15. We're not normal."
-- Gavin Friday, on himself and best friend Bono
20 Years of Achtung Baby: Why Achtung Baby Is Not U2's Greatest Album
November 18, 2011
The famous quote from Bono about Achtung Baby chopping down The Joshua Tree is an accurate one -- I'm just not in the camp that believes it was necessarily a good thing.
I'll fully admit to being dazzled by Achtung when it first came out. It was just so different! Such a departure! So un-like U2! And that's why it's dulled considerably over time.
I remember many critics and fans comparing it to The Beatles' game-changing Sgt. Pepper album. I agreed with that observation at the time and I still do. There is no question that Achtung Baby was revolutionary both for the band and for rock music in the early '90s, just as Pepper was in the late '60s. But Sgt. Pepper didn't capture The Beatles in their prime; nor did Achtung Baby capture U2 in theirs.
Both albums, when listened to from start to finish without interruption, are indisputable masterpieces. It's when you start plucking out songs individually that the genius fades.
Take, for example, "Zoo Station," the once-powerful opening track of Baby. At first listen, it was an electronic wonder that built tension and introduced Bono's mechanically altered voice. Now, I remember it instead for its contribution to a hilarious scene in the romantic comedy About A Boy. "Even Better Than The Real Thing," which appeared on MTV every few minutes in its era, is barely memorable today, save for the spinning video, which sold the world on Zoo TV.
Yes, U2 learned how to master a successful dance beat with the bewitching, radio-friendly-to-this-day "Mysterious Ways," but even that still feels weirdly out of place for the foursome. Like a team of football jocks crashing the drama nerds' party.
Songs like "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World" and "Acrobat" meander like wandering lost souls, wondering where all of the complexity went. "Love Is Blindness" feels like a contrived haunting at best; a church hymnal at worst.
In fact, if this album had been released in our present-day iTunes era (where we're all conditioned to listen a la carte) I doubt it would've had the success it did. The weakest songs of the bunch would never have been heard without the stronger ones holding them up -- the album needs the continuity to capture the clever.
The only track that reminds us who we're listening to, and could safely be tucked into the warmth of The Joshua Tree, is the one the band credits for preventing them from breaking up: the melodic, deep "One." Bono's voice is allowed to shine in its natural state; Edge's soft guitar glides along gently to carry it through. Perhaps this song is the reason so many of us hung on, thinking the album was just an artistic itch that needed to be scratched.
Unfortunately, it took two more albums for them to get this particular itch out of their system.
I won't begin to pretend I don't love some of the songs from Baby. I think "Until The End Of The World" is one of the greatest tracks they perform live; "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" means a lot to me for sentimental reasons.
But what makes this album inferior to The Joshua Tree and The Unforgettable Fire -- and maybe even All That You Can't Leave Behind -- is that U2 x-factor. The intangible passion that leaves you with chills when you hear even a moment of their magic.
Achtung Baby is fun and exciting, but it's intentionally manufactured. And that keeps it from possessing the timeless quality that's captured by other superior U2 albums.
Is it the worst album they've done? Absolutely not. I'd offer that dishonor to the almost-pointless Pop or the sadly sophomore October.
But it's nowhere near the best.
(c) @U2/Kokkoris, 2011.
[Ed. note: This is one side of a point-counterpoint from @U2 staffers about Achtung Baby on its 20th anniversary. For the flip side, please see 20 Years of Achtung Baby: Why Achtung Baby Is U2's Greatest Album.]