By Dave Smith, US Daily Review Contributor
The world was a very dynamic place in the fall of 1991: the Soviet Union was slouching towards its final demise, Germany was experiencing the growing pains of reunification after a half century of East versus West, and former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe were transitioning from communism to market economies. It was against this backdrop that the biggest rock and roll band of the 1980s made its claim on a second decade of dominance with the release of the epic masterpiece Achtung Baby.
The 1980s were a decade of great accomplishment for the foursome from Dublin, Ireland. U2 rose to prominence on the strength of anthemic songs built around the unique sound of guitarist The Edge and the earnest passion (and outsized ego) of lead singer and front man Bono. Rather than writing and performing songs that fit the stereotypical rock mold, hits like “Pride”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” dealt with big issues and contained rich religious imagery. An iconic performance at Live Aid in 1986 prepared the way for massive success of 1987’s landmark album The Joshua Tree, which sold over 25 million copies and catapulted beyond rock and roll and onto the cover of Time magazine.
Following extensive touring, a concert film, and an album of live material and some new songs, the band retreated to, as Bono put it, “dream it all up again”. Rather than making a sequel of sorts to The Joshua Tree, the members of U2 decided to move in a different, more challenging direction. To catch the vibe of the changing time, they left Dublin to record in Berlin at the Hansa Studio where David Bowie recorded the album Heroes in the 1970s, bringing Bowie collaborator Brian Eno along to assist in producing the album alongside Daniel Lanois and, for a few songs, Steve Lillywhite.
The band found recording in Berlin difficult. The recording studio was run down, and the winter mood in Berlin was not uplifting and positive (the band at one point inadvertently found themselves in a protest – against the destruction of the Wall). Worse, the musicians were having difficulty merging their respective visions of the direction the music should take; they even discussed breaking up. The Edge was dealing with the disintegration of his marriage.
Luckily for fans, they were able to work through their differences and find move forward. The result: a 12-song tour-de-force that managed to merge percussion inspired by hip-hop and electronic dance beats with edgy (no pun intended) guitar work, multi-layered vocals, and personal, introspective lyrics in nearly seamless fashion.
Like the album’s name itself, the songs on Achtung Baby instantly called attention to the fact that U2 was reinventing itself and exploring new directions in music. “I’m ready for what’s next” Bono sings over a hard-crashing guitar riff and industrial drum beats on the opening song, “Zoo Station”, his voice electronically processed. It sounded like nothing U2 had done before. Throughout the album, Bono’s lyrics explore the depths of love, pain, and relationships. The songs are darker in tone than previous U2 works – if the prevailing imagery of The Joshua Tree was the desert at high noon, Achtung Baby is the city at night.
When the album was released in the fall of 1991, the excitement surrounding it is difficult to overstate. Fans like me who came to love the band in the 1980s had heard rumors of the new direction, and the premiere of “The Fly”, the album’s first single and video, was a must-see event. To see Bono decked out in leather pants and bug-eyed sunglasses was a shock to the system – especially to those expecting the U2 of the previous decade – but a small minority of fans didn’t appreciate the experimental nature of the new sound, the album was well-received critically and sold well commercially.
What emphasizes the uniqueness of Achtung Baby, however, is how well the songs hold up twenty years later. “Until the End of the World”, a song about a conversation between Judas and Jesus years after the betrayal, still retains an urgency and importance and remains a staple of U2’s live show. “Mysterious Ways” is just as funky and groove-inducing as it was when the song and its trippy video were released in 1991, “The Fly” just as explosive. Bono is still fighting the contradictions about which he sings over a searing guitar in “Acrobat”. And, you can still hear the pain and despair mixed with hope in “Ultraviolet” or in the album’s gem, the ballad “One”. The songs don’t sound dated at all, which is a considerable accomplishment. Think: how many albums from 1971 sounded relevant in 1991?
The world was changing rapidly in 1991, and while there were many more earth-shaking events than the release of a rock album, there is impact in art and music and how they can seemingly define a moment in time. Only the truly great works, however, not only define a moment, but transcend it. U2 made just such an album two decades ago. Happy Birthday, Baby.