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"(Zoo TV) is a means for us to plunge 20,000 people in confusion." — Adam

Achtung Baby

Too Much of a New Thing
The St. Petersburg Times
U2 Achtung Baby (Island) 2 stars



Making a classic album, as U2 did with 1987's The Joshua Tree, brings its own set of problems. Besides the pressures of heightened stardom and being looked upon as pop messiahs and all that blah blah blah, the act must, at some point, put out another album.

To be accurate, U2 did that a couple of years ago with the soundtrack to the documentary Rattle and Hum, a low-stress affair that combined live tracks with a few new things. The set was more of a spin-off project than a full-blown album. Achtung Baby stands as the real follow-up to The Joshua Tree.

And Ireland's favorite sons seem to have come down with a case of Followup-itis. Although not a disaster, the new disc lacks the fire, the magic and the sheer meaning of Joshua, which established U2 as the best rock band in the world at dealing with political and spiritual themes in ways that were at once universal and personal.

The new album is almost obsessively personal, dealing with a darker side of love, loss, hope and despair, which is not intrinsically bad, of course, but the lyrics have an obtuseness about them that does not suit the band.

U2 may have tripped a bit by trying too hard not to repeat itself. Artistic change is best achieved as naturally as possible. U2 sounds as if it forced things. The band makes its not-the-same-old-U2 statement in the opening track, "Zoo Station," a churning rocker that finds Bono singing through a studio device that distorts his vocal. There's a mechanical, high-tech feel about the track that makes you suspect U2 has been listening to bands of the Jesus Jones ilk.

Three of pop's most elite and arty producers were at the controls of Achtung Baby: Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite and Brian Eno. They work together or separately on the 12 tunes. All told, the producers concoct a dazzling cornucopia of sound fat, dreamy, heavily echoed layers of sound. Sounds, and combinations of sounds, you've never heard before.

Guitarist Edge, once the master of chinka-chinka minimalism, has opened up a whole new sonic universe. His ax emits everything from abrasive shards of noise to lyrical slide solos to spiky strums to plaintive chord voicings, fuzzy riffs, shrieking feedback, wanton echo and a whole bunch more.

The gauzy production is consistently engaging, although sometimes you get a yen for the sandpapery guitar and ragged beats of old.

The album's preoccupation with sound almost masks a key element: the songs on Achtung Baby are just not up to standard. Although catchy in spots and enlightening in others, the melodies are simply not as grabby as the book of U2 classics. A few have potential. A highlight is "Acrobat," which chugs along on a syncopated beat and oozes passion.

Speaking of passion, Bono's singing is missing some. He seems to have consciously toned down his vocals, cutting back on the blood-curdling yowls, choosing instead to simmer, croon and explore a delicate falsetto. That's not to say Bono has gone wimpy he's just not as arresting on Achtung Baby as he has been in the past.

© St. Petersburg Times, 1991. All rights reserved.