Just about everyone I know has some strong opinion on U2 these days. Whether it’s approving nods at impersonators sending up Bono and The Edge on TV, mostly-correct rants about Live 8 do-gooding and Bono’s ascent to media sainthood, or serious arguments about when U2 actually stopped being ‘good’. I used to assert that The Joshua Tree/Rattle And Hum period was the last great time for them, with odd single release exceptions. (And really, Bono? Get on your boots? Your sexy boots? Get your coat and take a hike, more like.) So it was with some trepidation that I set about listening to Achtung Baby.
There’s no doubt that they’re clear about being over the dalliance with R&B and BB King duets on this album. All signs point to the nearest rock stadium, via early 90s UK indie psychedelia and early 80s experimentation, though space is given to the old sound of their heyday albeit with less of the political motivations. The opening track, though, is most certainly not cookie-cutter U2. Zoo Station begins in a wave of highly distorted guitars and driving beats, bearing only a tiny resemblance to the usual U2 fare with glimpses of The Edge’s trademark guitar. It’s harsh and difficult listening in any case, and not a song I’m overly fond of. Fortunately, we ease into single territory with the easy swagger of Even Better Than The Real Thing; you get a sense that Bono is quite comfortably ensconced in his Fly persona here, and the Clayton/Mullen rhythm section is as strong as ever. Not staying frantic and upbeat, One comes next of the ‘three alternative music videos’ fame. Cementing the theme of the personal and tortured love, Bono is lyrically at his most vulnerable:
Have you come here for forgiveness
Have you come to raise the dead
Have you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head
Did I ask too much, more than a lot
You gave me nothing, now it’s all I got
Despite the introspection, it’s radio-friendly all the way with strumming indie guitars and The Edge’s background contributions. Until The End Of The World would also sit nicely on a playlist somewhere, sounding a lot more like the older U2, all glorious solos and big chunky stadium sound, with hints of Madchester indie creeping in. Lyrically, however, it’s dark and slightly disturbing, with talk of drink-spiking and the end of days- Sunday Bloody Sunday it ain’t. That big arena swagger continues into Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, uplifting, over-produced and unapologetically ambitious in lyric content; of the singles released from this album it’s one of the finest.
So Cruel is a so-so offering. More of the same broken-hearted sentiments, yowling chorus, forgettable melody. The Fly picks things up again with the eponymous egotistical rockstar- who, arguably, Bono sort of forgot to switch off for the past decade- and it’s a grungy industrial classic. Hints of Primal Scream here and there among the dirty guitar licks, and somewhat leaden with irony among it all, lyrics on sinning and redemption:
It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest
It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief
But we’ll forgive all those righteous charitable peccadilloes and move on, shall we? Mysterious Ways is similarly self-confident, funky and radio-friendly- it’s got a catchy retro guitar hook, a memorable chorus, and is made for the stage this album constructs so well. Disappointingly, Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World seems to jar with the previous tracks, limping along with half-hearted Edge accompaniment, heavy world-weary drums and what sounds like an attempt to strip away the gloss to leave something anthemic and classic. It doesn’t seem to gel in the way it was intended, as I see it. I’d almost similarly despaired at the first few bars of Ultra Violet (Light My Way), but the dirgey opening gives way to what is arguably one of the better tracks. Good chunky Edge work, straightforwardly likeable melodies, chantable ‘baby baby baby light my way’ refrain- it’s got all the ingredients, and they combine well.
Acrobat kicks off with the distortion U2 are fond of on this album, but leads into something with just the tiniest glinting spark of political seething:
No, nothing makes sense, nothing seems to fit
I know you’d hit out if you only knew who to hit
And I’d join the movement
If there was one I could believe in
Yeah, I’d break bread and wine
If there was a church I could receive in
It’s not a track that will have them stomping about the stage in the manner of their earlier, more politically-charged work, but the harsh insistent guitar, the ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’ mantra and the harshness of Bono’s vocals does recall it a tiny amount. The album comes to a close with the downbeat Love Is Blindness, all sad organs, dirgey lyrics and now whispered, now desperate and half-tearful vocals, bringing proceedings to an unsettling close.
Overall, Achtung Baby is the reinvention U2 were hoping for after the mixed reception to Rattle And Hum, but it does fall a little flat in places where there’s been perhaps too much self-indulgent introspection or experiments in dissonance. Still, for all that it does hark back to classic U2 in places, and on reflection I’d give it more credit than I perhaps used to in the U2 canon.