"The soul is much stronger than any technique. That's what we have."
U2 Is Back Out On Edge With bracing 'Baby'
'Achtung' plays on trashy, dark, sexy, industrial. Achtung babies, U2's latest has a new, unforgettable fire.
The Hartford Courant,
November 19, 1991
It's been 4-1/2 years since the last studio album from U2, the fiery Irish rock band that dominated the end of the '80s with their strident anthems of rebellion and redemption.
Much of what they achieved seemed threatened by their very success, which spawned a typically overblown stadium tour and its subsequent documentation on self-important film and recorded versions. There seemed to be way too many comparisons to the Beatles, most of them coming from the band itself.
The years away from the public eye seemed to solve their overexposure problem. But there was very little exciting, frankly, about the music that slowly came forth. A version of "Night and Day" on the AIDS benefit album Red, Hot + Blue seemed all stage smoke and little substance. The score for a London musical of A Clockwork Orange by guitarist the Edge seemed indulgent and unlistenable.
Even the first single from their much-delayed Achtung Baby album, with its troubling title, was cause for worry. The nearly structureless "The Fly" was a common house-music variety, it turned out. It had a beat, a shimmering guitar and a soulful refrain, but none of it seemed to hang together particularly well or remain memorable. Rather, it sounded like a desperate stab at sounding like English chart upstarts Jesus Jones and EMF.
It's a pleasure and a relief to report that on the entire Achtung Baby, finally out in stores today, "The Fly" makes perfect sense and sounds better within the context of the whole album, a bracing, exciting change of pace for U2 that heralds a new chapter for the still very important band.
Brian Eno, who helped produce, wrote in Rolling Stone that during the one-year recording process, the bywords were: "trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy and industrial (all good)" while "earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear" were considered all bad. "It was good if a song took you on a journey or made you think your hi-fi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2," Eno wrote.
By doing away with expectations to either sound like itself or be righteous, which was long its code, U2 has opened itself up to a world of new and sonically updated music.
The band's aim -- from the metallic arpeggio that begins the album to the raw, stark sound of Bono on the vocals -- is to challenge their legions of fans. Although the band retains the usually pristine and atmospheric production of Daniel Lanois, the sound absolutely crackles with a revitalized, post-industrial buzz, with experimental vocals, generally big drum sounds and startling electric guitar riffs slicing through the stormy din. At the core of the tunes are the Edge's melodic, ringing chords and Bono's impassioned vocals, making it all unmistakable U2.
Early word on the album was that a dance beat played a more prominent role. And while that might be somewhat true, it never seems done in an obvious or pandering way. The second single, "Mysterious Ways" seems to better meld dance and rock.
No longer spokesmen for the saving of the world (the song "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World" is about promiscuity), nor lecturers on the history of American popular music, U2 uses the dozen songs on Achtung Baby to focus -- much more personally -- on the painful comings and goings in a relationship. It may be seen as a song cycle on faithfulness in couples or faith itself on a grander scale, if one can cut through the dense lyrics, which are often as abstract and surprising as the sound.
"You're the real thing," Bono sings on the second song, quickly amending it, "You're better than the real thing."
The stream-of-consciousness "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" seems compiled of two different songs; nevertheless, they sound terrific together, and make up one of the album's great anthems.
At times Bono seems to directly access the band's bold new direction. "I'm ready, ready for what's next," he declares on the frantic album-opening "Zoo Station." "Time is a train, makes the future the past. Leaves you standing in the station, your face pressed up against the glass."
And to those with faces pressed to the glass, he inquires, on the next track: "Did I disappoint you?"
As rock 'n' roll continues to shatter into different directions, into post-punk, metal, industrial, alternative, mainstream and pop, U2 uses the strength of its standing to combine approaches and lead a unified group of rock fans into the next decade, on a train speeding forward.
© Hartford Courant, 1991. All rights reserved.