"It's the most un-rock 'n' roll thing you could do, so I never ever talked about it, but that was actually my obsession before rock-and-roll."
-- Bono, on playing chess
On 'Achtung Baby,' Rock's Righteous Messiahs Turn Into Fools For Love
Rating: 3 stars
The Chicago Tribune,
November 17, 1991
Rating: 3 stars
Although never a band to underestimate the significance of its music in recent years, U2 shelves the sanctimony on its new album.
When Achtung Baby (Island) arrives in stores on Tuesday, listeners will hear the garage band in U2 fighting to get out. Even though the Irish quartet doesn't wholly succeed, Achtung Baby is fascinating because it suggests that maybe these guys aren't such sticks in the mud, after all. Rather than play the pop messiah, the supergroup scuffs up its sound while its leader plays a fool for love.
Previously, U2 had embraced the grand gesture, the "big music," as singer Bono Hewson once described it.
More than any band of the '80s, U2 embodied the we-are-the-world impulse that led to such activist rock as the Live Aid concerts for Ethiopian relief and the Sun City anti-apartheid album.
This righteous streak, combined with anthemic songs and Bono's charismatic voice, turned the band into an international stadium act and made The Joshua Tree album a multiplatinum blockbuster in 1987. By then, major music publications were tripping over themselves in a rush to anoint U2 the band of the decade.
With Rattle and Hum, however, a 1988 album/movie huffing and puffing with self-importance, the quartet's relentless profundity had reached the point of self-parody. Even some longtime fans began wishing the guys would loosen up a bit and retire those brooding profiles, if only for just one album.
Although no one will mistake it for the latest Nirvana release, Achtung Baby -- from its fanciful title on down -- shows the band in a grittier light: disrupting, rather than fulfilling, expectations.
A surprisingly unwashed set of 12 love songs, it opens by trying to out-demolish Ministry on "Zoo Station," with grating, metal-on-metal percussion and a belching guitar. Among superstar albums of the last dozen years or so, this rude awakening has only one parallel: the fingernails-on-chalkboard guitar scuzz that introduced Neil Young's "Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)" on Rust Never Sleeps.
After the bludgeoning abates on "Zoo," Bono enters the mix, but his usually stentorian voice is barely recognizable. It sounds distorted and distant, as though he's singing through a megaphone from the bottom of a well.
Whereas U2's sound has traditionally been expansive and cinematic, "Zoo Station" is compressed, nagging, aggravated.
Just as disconcerting is the first single, "The Fly," in which the Edge's guitar spits exhaust fumes over a rugged, neo-Bo Diddley beat. "The Fly" is less a great song than an irreverent gesture, its defiant lack of melody and sheen practically daring radio programmers to play it.
The rest of the album builds a bridge to the epic sound pioneered by U2, producer Brian Eno and engineer Daniel Lanois on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree.
Lanois handled most of the new album's production by himself, and his three-dimensional touch is most evident on "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses," which gallops into listening range like a legion of oncoming chariots. "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World" pits Adam Clayton's rumbling bass against the Edge's distant-thunder guitars, "One" builds with the stately grandeur of a Roy Orbison ballad and "So Cruel" unfolds sensually around a simple piano riff.
Yet these sonic ideas aren't just touchstones to the past but jumping-off points, as well. Clayton's bass is more prominent than ever and, along with Larry Mullen's syncopated drumming, it pushes "Mysterious Ways" (the album's most obviously "commmercial" song) in the direction of the dancefloor, previously uncharted territory for this band.
The Edge plays with bite and bile, eschewing solos in favor of choppy rhythms and hurricane squalls. Thanks primarily to him, U2 sounds punkier than it has since its 1980 debut, Boy.
Perhaps inspired by this garage-rock backdrop, Bono's voice and lyrics are earthier and less preachy -- gone are the once-obligatory pronouncements on the state of the world or the future of rock 'n' roll.
Although the subject of love -- between God and man, countrymen, races, creeds, nationalities -- has been an important subtext for every U2 album, on Achtung Baby it is framed exclusively in terms of an adult relationship.
It's rare enough for women to be treated in rock songs as anything other than objects of lust or abuse, but Bono not only addresses his love as an equal, he tries -- and inevitably fails -- to fathom her mystery.
That doomed romantic quest is what most of these songs seem to be about, and they present Bono at his most vulnerable and personal. Rather than trying to speak for his generation, here he is speaking his heart.
In these songs, love is treated as a sacrament, and womanhood is entertwined with the notion of godliness. The unflinching sincerity of Bono's pursuit is both a blessing and curse, for the singer risks playing the fool everytime he opens his mouth.
Achtung Baby has its share of clumsy couplets and out-and-out howlers, such as in "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)": "When I was all messed up/And I heard opera in my head/Your love was a light bulb/Hanging over my head."
Or, from "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World": "A woman needs a man/Like a fish needs a bicycle."
Yet in "One," Bono offers one of the pithiest insights yet about the contradiction of marriage: "We're one/But we're not the same."
He's a great singer because he doesn't just tiptoe to the brink of excess, he flies over it without bothering to wait for a parachute: "A man will beg/A man will crawl/On the sheer face of love," he whispers on "The Fly."
He clings to the sheer face of these songs -- some resonant, some half-finished -- with equal resilience, and he invests even the most trivial conceits with his belief.
Cliches such as the sleek "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" don't do justice to his desperation, but the unwieldy "Acrobat," which abandons the verse-chorus structure of pop, suits it perfectly. The tension between Bono's worst and best instincts yields an epiphany, a desire to consume and to be consumed: "To take the cup/To fill it up/To drink it slow/I can't let you go."
In the very next song, "Love is Blindness," he compares love to "drowning in a deep well."
Achtung Baby is Bono's free fall into that deep well, a magnificent search for transcendence made all the more moving for its flaws.
© Chicago Tribune, 1991. All rights reserved.