photo & text by nacrowe
i have early memories of U2's ACHTUNG BABY (ISLAND, 1991). specifically seeing the evocatively colorful and downright sensuous STEPHANE SEDNAOUI-directed "MYSTERIOUS WAYS" video on small tv in the guest room of my family's house in SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA. i must have been 7 years old.
there was a definite energy happening with that record. to date its easily my favorite U2 record with standout tracks like "EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING," "LOVE IS BLINDNESS," "ZOO STATION," "ACROBAT," "UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD," and the aforementioned "MYSTERIOUS WAYS." even today, this record still moves me. also, how do you not love a record whose titled references a scene from the cult comedy THE PRODUCERS (EMBASSY, 1967). forget and put aside any ill will you may harbor towards BONO and his pretentious JESUS complex for a moment, realize the dude named a record after reference to a MEL BROOKS film. that is the very definition of awesome.
any fan of the group will know that this record marked an important transition for the band where they in essence gutted and discarded the sound they had mined on previous releases throughout the 1980s. essentially guitarist THE EDGE was known for a jangly, delayed sound that made previous albums like WAR (ISLAND, 1983) and THE JOSHUA TREE (ISLAND, 1987) such seminal recordings. that ended with this record. sonically he explored digital / inorganic soundscapes with the help of returning producers DANIEL LANOIS, STEVE LILLYWHITE and BRIAN ENO that made use of everything from phasers and wah pedals to god knows what else behind the scenes. the results were startling and expansive, yet still sounded like THE EDGE through his unique melodic sensibilities that shone through new layered textures.
besides the sonic experimentalism at the core of the record, the lyrics and persona of BONO went through a huge transformation. in essence he discovered irony. yes there are earnest tracks that call back earlier materials such as "ONE" and "WHO'S GONNA RIDE YOUR WILD HORSES," but those are an exception to other more forward-looking tracks like "EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING" which seem to thrive on playing with the concept of authenticity in a world dominated by MASS MEDIA , specifically the newly emerging power of CABLE TELEVISION. its a heady concept that makes me think of other conceptual art pieces by the likes of DAVID BYRNE and TALKING HEADS. another song i really adore is "UNTIL THE END OF THE WORLD" which on first glance seems to be a classic love song where the protagonist is self-loathing and conscious of being unworthy of reciprocated love, but what you realize is that the subject of the story is in fact JUDAS ISCARIOT and his betrayal of CHRIST in the GARDEN OF GETHSEMANE. i know BONO is CATHOLIC and all, but this interplay of romantic and spiritual love through betrayal is very clever. maybe even literary. at the very least it is not standard rock fare by any means.
my favorite songs on the record are "LOVE IS BLINDNESS" and "ACROBAT" which i believe were entirely written by THE EDGE about his then divorce. those two tracks are so completely and utterly raw and nakedly vulnerable. really quite the achievement. it seems en vogue to hate U2, but i always go back to those two songs which i would put up against anything by any artist during any period in ROCK N ROLL history. i do believe they are that great.
i should also mention that during my elementary school days participating in local SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA sports events, one of the songs in the car on constant rotation was "ZOO STATION." for me that song is divorced from its BERLIN metro station origins (which i did get to visit!) and to me represents summer track meets and soccer tournaments as a youth. so i have deep sentimental attachments to this record. just want to put that out there.
so much more i could go into in terms of production (recorded at the legendary HANSA STUDIO) and history (recorded near the recently opened BERLIN WALL), but suffice to say this is a great album by a great band at an important inflection point during their career when they really outdid themselves. arguably that hasnt happened since, but man what a great album. definitely worth looking into and investigating further. higly recommended.