The year is 1991. You’ve just bought the new U2 record. You sit back and relax, expecting to hear The Edge’s trademark chiming guitar and Bono’s soulful vocals. Within the opening 10 seconds of “Zoo Station”, you think your speakers must be broken. The sound coming out is distorted and abrasive. A heavily electronic voice comes in, slyly saying, “I’m ready. I’m ready for the laughing gas. I’m ready for what’s next.” You just took your first steps into Achtung Baby.
The Irish rockers’ seventh studio album was a miraculous release. In the late ’80s, the band had reached the end of their rope, looking pretentious on 1988’s Rattle and Hum. They retreated to Berlin’s Hansa Studios to reinvent their style. However, the band couldn’t find a way to merge song structures with the experimental noises that Bono and Edge were listening to. The group came close to breaking up until a pieced-together guitar progression led to the motivated writing of “One”, effectively saving U2. Given how important Achtung Baby was to the band, it’s not a surprise that its 20th anniversary warranted such a huge box set release.
While not remastered, the sound of the original album is polished to fit with modern systems. For one thing, it’s louder, a change that was desperately needed given how weak the original mix sounds compared to other records. U2 didn’t enter the sound war, though. You can hear all the layers better than ever. Adam Clayton’s grooving bass and Brian Eno’s background synth textures are much easier to distinguish in “Even Better Than the Real Thing”. Edge’s guitar in “Until the End of the World” is pushed much higher, matching with Bono’s vocals.
Musically and lyrically, Achtung Baby sounds as fresh and relevant as it did 20 years ago. There hasn’t been another guitar effect that’s as funky as Edge’s on “Mysterious Ways”. “The Fly” is industrial grunge, featuring hip-hop beats, whispered vocals, and a blistering guitar solo. As for “One”, there’s nothing to say that hasn’t been mentioned already. Its place in the pantheon of rock classics is assured, its message about perseverance through pain universal. Unlike the political lyrics of the ’80s, Bono here is more personal, dealing with love and relationships. (“When I was all messed up and I heard opera in my head / Your love was a light bulb hanging over my bed.”) This is U2 at their most inspired and their most vulnerable, something they haven’t been able to match since.
While crisscrossing Europe on their subsequent Zoo TV tour, U2 had a bout of insanity and wrote an entire album in between concerts. The result is the highly experimental Zooropa, included in the Super Deluxe Edition. If Achtung Baby is the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree, its sister album finds them setting the tree on fire while listening to Sgt. Pepper and European disco. The title track is almost the anti-“Where the Streets Have No Name”, filled with radio noises, soft piano, and warped guitar. “Lemon” answers the question of what Prince plus the Talking Heads would yield. Johnny Cash takes the lead vocals on closing track “The Wanderer” for a surreal finale. It’s weird, wonderful, and worth checking out.
Of course, with any box set, the unreleased tracks are what fans look forward to the most. “Blow Your House Down” has a new vocal take from Bono over a dirty, raw guitar riff, culminating in a belting chorus. “Near the Island” is a gorgeous piano-laden instrumental. “Down All the Days” contains the stuttering, distorted guitar of “Numb” but is vocally based in The Joshua Tree period. Bono sounds like he’s singing a psalm in an electronic store, trying to break through the media overload to connect with anyone out there.
The curious final piece to this puzzle is the “Kindergarten” version of Achtung Baby. The early recordings of the album are really fascinating to listen to when compared to the finished release. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is a definite highlight, featuring far fewer effects and an almost completely restructured guitar melody. On the flip side, “So Cruel” has many more layers than the stripped-back final product. If you’re a huge U2 fan, a music producer, or someone who loves to see the creative process at work, this disc is for you.
Achtung Baby is the story of a band at a crossroads in their career. U2 dismantled their entire sound to create a brilliant, timeless record. Now, 20 years later, the band is once again at a crossroads. The run of anthem-ready albums from the 2000s has reached its saturation point. Only time will tell if the group is “ready to let go of the steering wheel” and see where the music takes them once again.
Essential Tracks: “The Fly”, “One”, “Zooropa”, and “Down All the Days”