Spin recently named U2’s Achtung Baby as the number one album of the past 25 years. As a big fan of U2, a few years ago, I probably would have listed Achtung Baby as such. (But I have to say, Rain Dogs, Rum Sodomy & The Lash, and The Queen is Dead – among a few that come to mind – have more meaning to me than Achtung Baby currently does.)
Most casual listeners refer to The Joshua Tree as U2’s masterpiece, but Achtung Baby truly does belong in the pantheon of great albums. Stripping away the worldview of their 80’s albums, Bono turned his lyrics inward creating U2’s most personal album. At the same time, the music was turned up inspired by the industrial movement and also David Bowie’s “Berlin Trilogy”. The Edge already known for his excessive use of guitar pedals, ditched his trademark echo for a wall of distortion. Achtung Baby is the 90’s version of “Sergeant Pepper” and “Highway 61 Revisited” – the sound of a band taking a giant risk musically while at the same time challenging its fans to fantastic results. (Unlike Radiohead, with Achtung Baby U2 created an experimental record that is actually listenable. Kid A I’m referring to you.)
Unlike a lot of other great albums, Achtung Baby’s emotional core is actually at the end of the album. The last three songs might be among the most emotional and sad songs U2 ever recorded. (And that’s saying something considering this U2 we’re talking about.) “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” shows a man at the end of his rope clinging on for dear life. (When singing this song on last year’s 360 tour, Bono would try to personify this by singing and swinging from a suspended microphone.) “Acrobat” deals with the conflicts of being a rock star, being spiritual but not religious. “Yeah I’d break bread and wine if there was a church I could receive in,” Bono sings. “Love is Blindness” ends the album on a slow note with the Edge producing perhaps the best guitar-solo he’s ever recorded. Depending on your point of view, the song is either about an IRA bomb, or leaving his home behind and sleeping with a prostitute. (I’m going with the prostitute theory.)
I don’t listen to Achtung Baby as much as I used to. But it still remains one of my favorite albums. And it’s also an album that U2 knows is among their best – they regularly play songs from it while on tour. And 19 years later, they’re still trying to recreate the magic of the album with last year’s disappointing No Line on the Horizon.