I remember buying this album with great enthusiasm when it came out in November 1991 and thinking about what are they going to do after The Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum. When I heard it for the first couple of times I was hugely disappointed. I thought “What happened to the U2 that I knew and loved? What happened to their rock sound? What is this East European confetti?” I told my friend that I was pretty upset that U2 had gone this way with a synthesizer, sound effects, feedback, and distortion and changed their sound. My friend who was far more mature told me to listen to it another couple of times and then think about it.
I did it and I am glad. The new sound grew on me and then I realized what U2 had done: They had done the most courageous and dangerous thing in the world. Instead of giving more of what they already had they had changed gears and headed out into the great sonic unknown. They had come up with a radically different sound that was fresh, strange, challenging, edgy, and innovative and taken their music in particular and rock music in general in a wholly new direction. Today many fans, critics, and fellow musicians rate Achtung Baby as arguably the best record U2 has ever put on vinyl.
A Whole New World
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The album opens with “Zoo Station” and straightaway Bono sets the mood for the whole aural experience that is to follow. While sound effects keep layering Bono is ready to do what it takes to open up your mind to their new sound. Think of the urgent and frenetic guitar of The Edge in the racy “Until the End of the World” that talks about the futility of having a pessimistic attitude to life. Think of the darkly dangerous tones of “The Fly” and “Mysterious Ways” and you know that U2 is pushing it as far as they can and daring you to come along for the ride.
“Even Better than the Real Thing” warns about the hypnotic hold the media has on you in this era of bewildering information overload. Only thing is that they did it in 1991 way before the Internet changed everything. Talk about foresight. U2 put more personal songs on this album than they had done in the past when their song anthems took center stage. Deeply confessional songs like “One,” “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” “So Cruel,” and “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” are moving and introspective and make you look inside yourself for those deep feelings that you always keep bottled up and hidden.
Songs like “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” “Acrobat,” and “Love is Blindness” are unlike what U2 had ever done till that point of time and mesmerize you with their aural intricacies. There isn’t a single average song on this album. Achtung Baby is the precursor to the music of bands like Radiohead and has more in common to Brian Eno’s ambient music than to rock music as we know it. Not surprising as Eno was one of the producers on this album along with Daniel Lanois. The drumming is amazing and strong bass is heard throughout the album along with futuristic sounds from the Edge even as Bono chews up the scenery.
A Risky Gamble that Paid Off
U2 was one of the few bands that survived the grunge explosion and Achtung Baby shows you why. Even though it was released in 1991 it sounds just as fresh and daring as it did back then almost three decades ago. It’s probably the riskiest album they came out with at a time when they had the whole world at their feet. U2 took a giant step into the unknown with Achtung Baby and boy, did it pay off! So if you want to know how rock can be your bold statement to the world and stand up for yourself go and listen to Achtung Baby today. It’s an awesome experience that you will never tire off.