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"A lot of people have nothing to say, and they say it all the time." — Bono

@U2 Book Review: Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall

The 49th book in the 33 1/3 series.
Continuum Publishing puts out a nifty series of books called 33 1/3, each book one author's take on an entire album from the rock n roll canon. Everything from Abba to Zeppelin has been covered, and now U2 is represented by 33 1/3's 49th release Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall, by Stephen Catanzarite.

Authors have free reign to write whatever inspires them about the album of their choice. Some books are pure fiction, like Rid of Me (PJ Harvey) by Kate Schatz. Other offerings, like J. Niimi's Murmur (R.E.M.), stick closer to the subject matter, talking about the band and the development of their sound, song by song.

Stephen Catanzarite takes his readers on a metaphysical trip with Achtung Baby. The first line of his book emphatically declares, "This is not a book about U2." Indeed, he is correct. Catanzarite views the album through the filter of his Catholic faith, and puts forth the theory that the album is about the Fall of Man, and each song a variation on that theme. For the uninitiated, this is the biblical story of Adam and Eve, and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden after disobeying God by eating fruit from the only tree he was saving for himself.

Each chapter represents a song (or two) following the descent of this couple into mere mortal life in the City of Man. They lose their names and simply become "the man" and "the woman," and our story begins with the couple standing outside the gates of Eden, God's bootprint still stinging the skin of their backsides. Cue "Zoo Station." Once they get on the train to "Sin City," the reader gets a tour of what it might mean to be a Catholic in modern times. We have ruminations on all of life's Serious Issues: love, sex, sin, evil, desire, hypocrisy, forgiveness, death and the meaning of life itself, among other things, all in relation to what was lost when the gates slammed shut.

(The chapter titled "A Word from Our Sponsor," about the song "Until the End of the World," is the only one where the man and woman do not appear. The song is taken at face value just as it was written, as a conversation between Judas and Jesus.)

The book reads like a well-written thesis, and Catanzarite is knowledgeable both musically and theologically. The songs are the bones on which the author fleshes out his theories, with the help of quotes by philosophers, poets, musicians (Axl Rose, of all people), and whole passages taken from books by religious scholars of different faiths. There are references to Neil Young, Led Zeppelin (the Tower of Babel is the original stairway to heaven), Bob Dylan and Morrissey for the rock cognoscenti, as well as a few Chinese proverbs thrown in for good measure.

The writing can be quite expressive, especially if the songs are in your head as you read. Imagine the opening strains of "Even Better than the Real Thing" under this passage:

Emerging from the train station, he is ambushed by a rush of sights, sounds, smells, and souls. A kaleidoscope guitar spirals beneath the howls of the buskers and barkers. Everything glitters, from the blinking lights and flashing neon signs of the nightclubs and bars to the flashing chrome on the cars slowly weaving through the crowded streets. Perfumes and colognes, beer breath, sweat, and urine, cigarette smoke and car exhaust clash and blend to create a robust and lusty potpourri.

The songs themselves are like apparitions in these chapters, ghosts that flit between the heavy interpretations around them. No lyrics are directly quoted, but the intent is there, along with an occasional description of the noise itself; a "hungover bass line," or a "harrowing guitar solo" that propels the narrative. Whether the interpretations are accurate or not depend on the reader's reception of the material.

Far from being a beach read, there is plenty to ponder, debate and rage at in this diminutive volume (107 pages that fit in the palm of your hand). There is so much I disagree with, but it has more to do with my personal issues with my former faith than it does with the author, who is unapologetic and has every right to his beliefs. I won't argue the Catholic dogma encountered in this book, but there were chapters that riled me in other ways, particularly "Fear of Woman," which covers the songs "Mysterious Ways" and "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World." While the author bemoans women's diminished status throughout history, I am consistently exasperated by the Catholic Church's continued perpetuation of these so-called "grave injustices and discrimination." Perhaps Catanzarite is aiming this at the leaders of his own faith as well as to society at large? I highly doubt it.

The average Joe U2 fan may be disappointed if they picked up this book thinking it was actually about the making of Achtung Baby or about the songs themselves. Only the last chapter, "Epilogue Wake," offers the author's brief fan-boy version of the genesis of the album, the band, and their career. I can disagree with the author on many levels, but the one thing I can agree with is Catanzarite's assertion that Achtung Baby "should be recognized as being among the best and most fully realized works of art rock and roll has produced," and deserves repeated listening. Amen to that.

© @U2/Maione, 2007.

Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall is published by Continuum International Publishing Group and available in bookstores now ($10.95 list price).