Looking back at Achtung Baby, 20 years on

I’m of the age that’s supposed to like Nirvana more than U2. Or at least, when U2’s Achtung Baby came out, I was. (I suspect a lot of people my age would rather listen to U2 than Nirvana now, while my teenaged nephew would have the opposite opinion.)

I bought both Nevermind and Achtung Baby, at the same time in fact. I’ve written before about what Nevermind meant to me and the people around me. Being arguably my favorite record of all time, I think Achtung Baby, which is being re-released this week, deserves the same treatment.

Achtung Baby had a different kind of angst than Nevermind. That may seem like a strange statement to make, but just beneath its often radio-friendly surface, there’s a tremendous amount of angst in the album. Some songs said it more blatantly than others, but the theme I find bubbling throughout is the idea of an incredibly successful young 30-something who can date pretty much anyone he wants, except for the one he really wants, so none of the rest of it matters. (Guitarist David Evans, better known as The Edge, was going through a painful divorce at the time.)

And then there’s the struggle of what arguably had been the biggest band in the world trying to figure out how to release a suitable followup to The Joshua Tree and disagreeing about it so violently that they almost broke up in the process of making the record. That tension is in there too, though not as much as in some of the songs they ultimately left out. (A Youtube search on “Hansa Ton” yields the contents of an early tape from the Achtung Baby sessions and gives insight on just how different of a record it could have been. Probably not better, and definitely different.)

The cool kids liked Nirvana better, and most of them, at least in public, said U2 were sellouts. I always found that ironic, since the thing U2 was most trying not to do was release another album that sounded like The Joshua Tree, because that would be selling out. And there’s something to that argument. How many people do you know who say, “I really liked U2 up until Bono started wearing weird glasses?”

Funny thing is, after more than a decade of resisting, they did release a record that sounded like The Joshua Tree and the glasses critics still didn’t like it. Oh well.

I actually bought the record twice. The first time was in high school. Then some guy from Chillicothe stole my first copy during my freshman year of college. So I bought it a second time not long after.

And actually, the record wasn’t quite full of radio-friendly songs. The first single, “The Fly,” was anything but radio-friendly. Edge’s guitars sounded like explosives going off, and Bono’s voice sounded demon-possessed. It was dark and brooding and radio-unfriendly enough that those alternative and college radio stations that had written U2 off suddenly became interested again.

People who fell in love with U2 during the Joshua Tree era generally hated the song. I liked it enough to buy the album just based on that single, without hearing any of the rest of it.

But “Zoo Station” was just a little too weird for me. Generally I just threw the album in, skipped to track 2, and hit play. “Even Better than the Real Thing” sounded like a good way to lead off the album anyway.

By my count, the album yielded at least five singles, four of them bona-fide hits (“Mysterious Ways,” “One,” “Even Better than the Real Thing,” and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”) and album-oriented stations gave a fair bit of air time to “Until the End of the World” too. My favorite songs, as usual, were two that got little, if any, airplay: “Acrobat” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way).” They were a little too dark and cerebral for FM radio, but held out bigger glimmers of hope than, say, “So Cruel,” and were a lot more listenable than the super-weird tracks like “The Fly” and “Zoo Station.” Or maybe I liked them because they mixed the themes of faith and doubt in, but with a heavier dose of doubt than we usually saw on earlier U2 records.

Who am I kidding? I liked them because I could relate to them more than all the others. So if I had time to listen to two songs, those two were the ones I picked. It helped that they were back-to-back, but listen to them, and those two songs belong back-to-back anyway.

And that’s the other thing about the album. It really is an album. The pieces fit together. And it all builds up, culminating with the intense “Acrobat,” which then leads into the end, “Love is Blindness.” There’s no resolution, no happy ending, just this. It’s haunting and at times compelling, and a fitting conclusion.

But most of all, it’s stood the test of time. Some of the tracks on it are still radio staples today. Here’s how it holds up. I outgrew a lot of the things I liked when I was 17. It’s fine that I liked them at 17, some of them would be childish to give a second thought today, now that I’m in my mid-30s. And when I was 17, this was my favorite record. This past week, I sat down and listened to the whole thing, track 1 to track 12 in order, for the first time in a very long time, to see if it still sounded as good to me as it did when I was 17.

It did. I can still say this is my favorite record, not care who knows it, and feel no need for explanations or apologies.

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