‘Achtung Baby’: U2 Spring A Sonic Surprise On The 1990s

‘Achtung Baby’ was the album that recalibrated the U2 sound for the new decade.

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U2 'Achtung Baby' artwork - Courtesy: UMG
U2 'Achtung Baby' artwork - Courtesy: UMG

The world changed dramatically in the three years in between Rattle and Hum and Achtung Baby — and so did U2. By the time their seventh studio album was released on November 18, 1991, Germany had reunified, the first, unofficial text message had been sent, Nelson Mandela was a free man, Margaret Thatcher had resigned, and the Soviet Union was about to dissolve. Amid events of such magnitude, the biggest rock group in the world had some momentous changes of their own to unveil.

The first year of the 1990s was one of both individual adventure and collective achievement for U2. They were named Best International Group at the BRIT Awards for the third straight year, collected a slew of Rolling Stone awards, and covered Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” on the compilation album Red Hot + Blue to support the fight against AIDS.

For the band, the conversation was all about where to travel next after the immense impact of Rattle and Hum. What emerged was an album open to all kinds of sounds and hues, and one that would add to U2’s collection of anthems even as it recalibrated their sound for the 1990s. It went on to win them two more Grammys, for Best Rock Performance and Producer of the Year for Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno.

This was rock, but not always as we had known it from them before. At a remove from the American roots music that provided the palette for Rattle and Hum, darker elements were creeping onto the canvas. Yet, dependably, Achtung Baby was still overflowing with grand-scale songs that were set to ring around the arenas and stadia of the world.

U2 - Even Better Than The Real Thing

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Opening sessions for the new endeavor took place at Hansa in Berlin, and at Elsinore in the Dublin suburb of Dalkey. But it was back at U2’s longtime bedrock of Windmill Lane Studios that the passion of those discussions alchemized into the sensual, shadowy soundscapes that adorned the album. Bono went so far as to call it “a new start.”

The credits for the recordings would now have Daniel Lanois as sole producer on five of the album’s 12 tracks. Brian Eno, his collaborator, and mentor on three previous multimillion-sellers were credited with him on five more. The band’s innate sense of continuity also saw the return of their original producer Steve Lillywhite, with Daniel and Brian, on the other two.

“I’d say we had some pretty interesting and lengthy discussions during the making of this album, and it’s better for it,” Lanois told Vox magazine on the release of Achtung Baby. “I find it difficult to divorce myself from the record and be totally objective, but I do think that U2 needed to return to more European exoticism.

“Recording in Berlin was a good decision. They wanted to use Hansa because of all the records made there which they respected and loved. I’m thinking of Iggy Pop’s Lust For Life, a big influence, and the records Bowie made with Eno. I guess they figured some of that history would seep out the walls, and it worked out that way.”

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First to show from the sessions was “The Fly,” another startlingly different opening single and one that confirmed their fearlessness and hunger to be intact. Far from the roots-rock of the companion pieces The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum, this was an angular, raw, almost indie-sounding U2, and devotees made the trip with them by the million.

“The Fly” landed on the British charts at the very top in October 1991, the first time U2 had achieved an instant UK No. 1. Entering an arena of stodgy old-school rockers, fly-by-night pop fluff, and ephemeral novelties, it sounded fresh, alive, and the perfect appetizer for the album that followed a month later.

Edge’s snarling guitar

From the first moments of Edge’s snarling guitar and Mullen’s garage drum sound on the album opener “Zoo Station,” we took in previously undeveloped facets of U2’s collective character. “I’m ready for what’s next,” sang Bono. “Ready for the shuffle, ready for the deal, ready to let go of the steering wheel.”

No fewer than five songs from the Achtung Baby dozen would be released as singles, and their strength in depth was a testament to the painstaking debate that preceded their birth. “Mysterious Ways” and “Even Better Than The Real Thing” had the dimensions of previous crowd-pleasers, but now with nods to the burgeoning sounds of electronica and hip-hop.

In between, the plaintive, elegant call to arms “One” emerged as one of U2’s very best ballads. The version that the band recorded many years later with the queen of hip-hop soul herself, Mary J. Blige, confirmed and underlined the soulfulness at the song’s core. Then came another widescreen “torch song,” as Adam Clayton styled it, in “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.”

U2 - One (Official Music Video)

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Time magazine, which had placed U2 on its front cover four years earlier, was lavish in its praise, describing Achtung Baby as “dashing and demanding.” The album was “full of major-league guitar crunching and mysterious, spacy chords.”

Restoring U2 to scale

Writer Jay Cocks also wrote in that contemporaneous review that “…U2 does something unique here. The band not only reasserts itself but reinvents itself too. After Rattle and Hum, there was some thought that it had overreached itself, gone a little too mainstream, got a little too big even for its own grand ambitions. Achtung Baby restores U2 to scale, and gives the band back its edge.”

The Lovetown tour had placed U2 in Australia, New Zealand, and Japan extensively in 1989, then back in Europe as the decade turned. Four nights at the Point Depot in Dublin included a New Year’s Eve celebration in which the set list embraced everything from “Angel of Harlem” to “Auld Lang Syne.”

When they returned to the road behind Achtung Baby, early in 1992, it was with the entirely new multi-media experience of ‘ZooTV.’ Night after night, across no fewer than five tour legs, the band took their new sound and vision to millions, from Meadowlands to Earls Court, Giants Stadium to Celtic Park, and Dublin’s RDS Arena back to ‘New Zooland’, as they restyled it for the final dates.

U2 - Mysterious Ways (Official Music Video)

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“I remember crazy lights, words, music, the confession box with black/white zebra pattern, U2 condoms,” wrote one fan of her first concert by the group, at Wembley Stadium in August of 1993. “No band can ever match a U2 live concert and no band has ever come close.”

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It was the magnificent setting that the new album, and an already expansive catalog, deserved. “There’s another record that belongs with this, just as Rattle and Hum belonged with The Joshua Tree,” said Bono of Achtung Baby. “I know that record, I can hear it in my head already.” Soon, so would we.

Buy or stream the 30th anniversary editions of Achtung Baby.

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