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With punk, you could pick up a guitar and you didn't have to play it very well. But with hip-hop, you didn't even have to play badly -- you just got a record of somebody who could play. -- Bono

Achtung Baby

Three years on, still a Bono of contention
The Independent (London)
Are U2 evil? There's been no shortage of opportunity to reflect on this question in the days before the release of Achtung Baby (Island, out tomorrow), especially with Radio 1 declaring Thursday "U2 Day." Whether this meant last Thursday or every Thursday for ever, only time will tell. U2's monolithic quality is part of what makes so many people despise them, seeing them not, as their legions of admirers do, as beacons of passion and integrity, but as embodying all that is most horrible about rock music -- the posturing, the self-importance, the crimes against fashion.

U2 were the most wide-eyed of a generation of bands that emerged when the negativity of punk seemed to have done its job. Along with Echo and the Bunnymen and Simple Minds, they promised the excitement and redemptive properties of rock without the pomposity and the self indulgence. It was naive to believe that promise, but a lot of people did. Just as the Beatles could never shrug off the strait-jacket labelled "four lovable Merseyside mop-tops," so U2 would forever be "four young men standing on the brink of adulthood," their other-worldliness connecting up all too easily with a lot of twaddle about the innate spirituality of the Irish.

U2's music, for all its bluster and traditional ingredients, always had a strange air of rootlessness, of coming from somewhere else, exacerbated by the image-maker Anton Corbijn's urge to photograph the band in deserts and up mountains. Their last album, Rattle and Hum, an attempt to map out their musical heritage, was a crass manoeuvre which left them looking like tourists.

Three years on comes a new postcard, not from America this time but from Hansa's Studio Two in Berlin, where the old skin on the floor includes particles of David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Nick Cave. Not a pleasant thought. The video for the single "The Fly," all shadows and sunglasses, did not bode well, but the song was surprisingly agreeable, even managing to punch the odd hole through the cotton-wool blanket of Daniel Lanois's production.

Despite its awful title, Achtung Baby is in many ways an admirable record. Surprisingly introverted and complex, and with little of the usual flag-waving, it is also strangely tuneful. Bono's singing is at times almost subtle, and the Edge even turns off the chime button of his guitar once or twice. The lyrics are still a Bono of contention, but at least there are no songs about walls being broken down. To their credit, U2 have never been afraid to risk losing fans, whether by telling American audiences that Noraid was not a good thing or by making a dense and initially impenetrable record like this one.

U2's is not the only album of the week that a record industry executive might term "long-awaited." Those notorious Marillion imitators Genesis are back too, with We Can't Dance (Virgin).

[Article continues about the new Genesis record with no further mention of U2]

© The Independent, 1991. All rights reserved.