It’s cliché to say you hate U2 these days, and despite being a lifelong fan, I can see the reasons why. For starters, Bono has turned from a rocker with a conscience to some guy in shades who tries to save African kids from poverty while carrying Louis Vuitton luggage. Most importantly, however, their last album sucked despite the rave reviews which made me wonder whether the critics received a different album than the one I heard. That said, from the lukewarm response to the new songs during their last tour, I’m confident I’m among the grand majority who thought it was bland and uninspiring. But despite the band’s recent inability to make great music, it’s only appropriate that we remember a time when they did, and there was no better time than in late November 1991 when the masterpiece known as Achtung Baby came out.
Achtung Baby was gifted to me by a close friend on my 14th birthday back in 1993. Up to that time, I must confess that I was not exactly a fan of U2 although I had heard most of their major hits on the radio (including some of Achtung‘s hits). And even though it did not win me over immediately, over time I became irrevocably hooked, to the point that I was eventually convinced that it was the best album I had ever heard in my young life. Who would have thought that, nearly two decades later, I would still think so? But more than that, Achtung Baby promptly triggered an almost pathological need to get my hands of every U2 album made until then and a near-religious devotion to Ireland’s most famous sons since. I have all their albums (except the last one which royally sucked). I have most of their videos on VHS or DVD. I’ve seen them live four times and one of those, their 1997 showing in Mexico City which was later immortalized in a DVD, is also to this day the best concert I’ve ever been to (I unfortunately missed the Zoo TV Tour). I even read a really great book about them, set during their Achtung Baby/Zooropa days and which I strongly recommend to any U2 fan. No group, with the exception of The Clash or The Cure, comes even remotely close to the impact that U2 has had in my life.
So I will admit that I am slightly biased with regard to Achtung Baby. Certainly there is a strong case to say The Joshua Tree was U2’s greatest masterpiece and I will not argue against it. In fact, I will concede that The Joshua Tree’s best songs are better than Achtung Baby’s best, although in my opinion, the latter is a better album. Why? For starters, it’s perhaps the most daring and yet successful reinvention of a band of U2’s stature ever (by the late 1980s they were selling out stadiums, a feat nobody but the Rolling Stones has been able to do on a consistent basis since). Purists will say that the use of electronic elements in their new sound killed off the “true” U2 post-punk sound, but it’s hard to criticize the end result when it was so magnificent. Has the group’s musical creativity been any better than in “Zoo Station” or “Mysterious Ways”? Have Bono’s lyrics ever been more poetic than in “One”, or more introspective than in “Acrobat” or “Ultraviolet” (quite possibly the two best U2 songs never released as singles)? Has The Edge’s guitar ever sounded as earth-shattering as in “Until The End of The World” or as flirtatious as “The Fly”? Not in my opinion.
Now, I’m going even further than saying that Achtung Baby was U2’s finest: there’s a strong case to say it’s been the best album of our lifetime. Think about it, after being unquestionably the greatest rock band of the 80s, Achtung Baby made them relevant for a better part of another decade, and the multimedia frenzy of the Zoo TV Tour has upped the ante for concert-making ever since (if imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then even the mighty Stones have tipped their hats to the four Irishmen judging from their subsequent tours). I understand I’m probably swimming against the current here, given that Nirvana’s Nevermind is generally taken as the decade’s best, or at least it’s most influential. I will concede on the latter point, and in fact, I’d say Achtung Baby didn’t really change music if by that one implies spawning a swathe of imitators. But then neither did the Joshua Tree, or The Clash’s London Calling, or even The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper. They were just damn fine albums for their day, and pinnacles of each group’s musical excellence.
Ok, I know music can be a passionate subject and I will certainly not win many people over with such a brash assertion. Then again, I’m sure that more than one of you will agree. But whether or not you think Achtung Baby is indeed the defining album of our lifetime, and Zoo TV the most awesome tour ever, you can’t deny that it was a brave step forward for a band who risked it all to reinvent themselves for a new decade. And in this sense, it captured the zeitgeist better than any other album of its day – be it by accepting electronic music into their repertoire, or evoking the euphoria and uncertainty of a unified Germany (and a unified Europe just weeks after the album came out). It was an album of the nineties, and for the nineties, a decade which for better or worse will have forever shaped our lifetime. I, for one, am glad this album was a part of it.
“And you can dream – so dream out loud”