Okay, I'll admit it- I have been putting off this
commentary due to fear of hate mail from concerned readers and fellow writers.
In this modern day, to be a 'discerning' music columnist at the crest of the
taste making monument, it's almost a requirement that you dislike U2.
From Bono's oft-cliched sunglasses to some extraordinarily ham-handed lyrics, (A
mole/ Diggin' in a hole/ Diggin' up my soul now/ Goin' down/ Excavation) to
the relentless, laser-honed marketing campaigns surrounding an official release,
there is an awful lot to gripe about. But the act didn't always seem as
contrived as this.
If you can put all of your Bono reservations aside for a moment to hear about
some context, it will make this commentary a little bit easier to swallow.
First, take a look at the U2 of the 1980s: the mullet hair and "working man"
looks (especially on The Edge), the God-loving, wholesome Irish crusaders
pursuing justice, Springsteen-style. Compare that with the majority of the
non-Springsteen popular artists of the time (e.g., Def Leppard, Motley Crue,
Loverboy, Sheena Easton, Michael Jackson, etc.) and notice that U2 really didn't
fit in with any of them. These boys, as Brian Eno said, were ridiculously "uncool"
in an era of complete and utter coolness (not that we necessarily believe that
said acts are "cool" now). Their music was kind of plain with a little bit of
salt and pepper added (namely, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois), and even more than
that, it was so serious in a time when barely anything serious made it on
Fast forward to 1988. The band is now "Rock's Hottest Ticket," says Time
Magazine, thanks to the global acceptance of The Joshua Tree LP. The
band then goes and does something even less cool than their usual routine by
making a documentary of the tour, acting like they're signed to Sun Records in
the '50s; this proceeds to piss off a lot of people. How uncool.
Now in the '90s, things are starting to take a different turn. There's an
underbelly of acts that have been gaining popularity in the college circuit --
R.E.M., the Pixies, Sonic Youth. In Britain, Pixies, in particular, are turning
a lot of heads and getting people excited about the creative process again. Not
only that, but they are writing about some serious subjects without seeming
put-off-ish. U2, being the wise market readers that they have become, realize
that the tide is turning. Or, at least, half of the band sees this
Enter our good friends Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois again. Drawing inspiration
from Bowie's Berlin trilogy of albums (Low, Heroes, Lodger),
the band start to emulate sounds heard on those records. They even make the
recordings in a former Nazi ballroom -- perhaps an explanation for the tension
the sessions in Germany created. The recordings were incredibly listless and
seemingly hopeless (as evidenced in countless bootlegs) and almost lead the band
to disintegrate under the weight of the nothingness. During a battle over the
structure of "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)," Eno and Lanois suggested combining
two bridges of the song. This ended up leading to the writing of "One," which
was to be the song that motivated them to continue.
The band immediately moved the recording sessions to Dublin, where the sounds
began to hash out. With half the band's members wanting to explore new musical
styles such as electronic, college rock, and hip-hop, and the other half wanting
to remain conservative, there was a distinct clash in direction. Achtung Baby
is ultimately as much a product of the producers as it is the band. With the
straightforward rock stylings of Steve Lillywhite to the dense, dark electronic
atmospheres of Flood to the dissident folk of Daniel Lanois, the record had some
of the most creative talent in popular music involved in it. It's the
collaborative spirit in this record that makes it great, not the singles like
"One" or "Mysterious Ways."
Essentially, the best thing about U2's 1991 record was its "lesser" or "filler"
tracks. Songs like "Love Is Blindness" or "So Cruel" seem separate from a time
or space. Even the songs written around that time which ended up on later
records, such as "Wake Up Dead Man," evoke that feeling. The recording
techniques (or possibly just the actual volume levels) make it sound like it's
from the 1990s, but the finished result of the wash of sounds make it seem
foreign. Achtung Baby's beauty was in its uncouth irony, much like the
self-depreciating humor of Bono acting like he is so into himself on the crazed
Zoo TV tour that accompanied the album. The interesting paradox with this
paradox of an album is that it seems Bono actually became the man who's
full of himself. This era of U2 was so detached that it was cool, or even more
so, it was so cool that it wasn't at all.
At least it had its irony. Now that U2 has gone full-circle and is mellowing
into being the 40-year-old version of their 1980s selves with their
striving-for-radio like school boys routine, you almost wonder if the whole act
was completely intentional or not. Prior to songs like "Vertigo" and "All
Because of You," they used to tactfully write little creative sound poems.
Whatever happened to pieces like "Alex Descends Into Hell For a Bottle of Milk"?
Since there are so many things I could criticize about the current state of the
U2 affairs, Achtung Baby remains an anomaly amongst their catalogue, the
one era I can find very little fault in. It's true, I do find drastic changes
between albums to have great value, and I am a tremendous fan of irony in
writing. I love rich, dense production and vibrant ranges in sound, as well as a
great pop hook. For me, it just doesn't get a whole lot better than this album,
regardless of all the tremendously brilliant indie bands of the world. Sure, too
many words have been spent on this group, but what the hell -- they can be
absolutely brilliant. Even in dorky sunglasses.