A Trip to the Human Zoo

  • Artist: U2
  • Title: Achtung Baby
  • Released: 1991
  • Format: 180g Vinyl Remaster/CD
  • Genre: Pop/Rock
  • Beverage of Choice: Canada Dry Ginger Ale

U2‘s particular brand of pop/post-punk rock/blues rock/garage rock only impressed itself on my consciousness in late 1983 after the release of their third album, War. I’d been drafted into the South African military to begin my two years of mandatory ‘national service’ and, of course, taken a small library of metal and heavy rock cassette tapes with me in an attempt to hold onto my individuality and prove to the powers that be that they could rob me of my personal freedoms but would never capture my mind or soul. Hey, what can I tell you except that I was young and foolish and they, inevitably, ground me down to a point where I could be rebuilt with a vestige of self-respect, discipline and purpose (albeit their purpose, not mine).

During my time in boot-camp I was exposed to a variety of human life that I hadn’t known existed up to that point; naive farm boys, world-wise inner-city hoodlums, arrogant rich kids and everything in between (I was a nice suburban middle-class cliche) all of whom, I soon realized, had some traits that were admirable and to be emulated as well as rough edges that were nasty and to be avoided. All of us were white males between the ages of 17 and 24 with a mix of certainty and ignorance that comes with the demographic.

Grounded in 70’s hard rock, proven by 80’s metal and certainly exposed to punk, an Irish pop/folk band was just miles off my radar – until one my platoon buddies turned up “Sunday Bloody Sunday” on his portable cassette deck and a I realized I had been missing out on a more melodic and emotional version of the music I already loved. I was instantly hooked and managed to get the first three albums delivered to me by my long-suffering parents when they got a chance to visit their baby boy after 10 weeks of army indoctrination. Since then, I’ve purchased every U2 album on CD, vinyl or download (and sometimes all three, witness this album) as soon as they were made available and, to make a long story shorter, I regard Achtung Baby as the pinnacle of their amazing career.

Now, if you’re a huge fan and disagree with me ( some of my friends I still speak to think U2 sold out when they met Daniel Lanois and that War is the last ‘real’ U2 album), that’s OK. Just hear me out and then, if you’re still deluded we can agree… that you’re still deluded. Lanois’ production magic on The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree turned U2 into an international phenomenon and also made them immensely rich; I’m not saying they wouldn’t have been successful without him, I’m just observing that the sound we’ve come to associate with U2 (the booming echoey drum patterns, spacious guitar and ambient keys) were only there in embryonic form on Boy, October and War and, without Lanois (with a shout-out to Brian Eno for the more ambient elements), they would have been lost in the New Wave of music that was washing up on shores all around the world.

To me, Unforgettable and Joshua were warm-ups for Achtung, where the band became everything they could be and laid down an album that will, in my opinion, come to be regarded as the moment U2 stopped trying to be ‘important’ and ‘relevant’ and simply rocked. The previous album Rattle and Hum (which I regard as in their top 3, with either of the aforementioned Lanois-era albums in the lineup) showed movement towards this goal with songs like “Desire“, ” When Love Comes to Town“,” God Part II” and the live version of “Bullet the Blue Sky” being stand-out moments.

Finally we turn to the music on Achtung Baby and get drop-kicked into the distorted vocals, huge bass-line and tightened snare drum that, along with swirling ambient keyboards and the Edge’s inimitable/idiosyncratic/obsessive-compulsive guitar playing make up the elements of this offering. The addition of Steve Lilywhite to the production team also tightened things up a bit and gave the band more room for harder edges and sound on some tracks. With Lanois and Eno playing on various songs, the sound is also expanded and sophisticated beyond that which the four-piece band could muster on their own.

Zoo Station” eases us into the playlist with lots of overdubbed vocal layers and that huge drum sound dominating the song. Then into the sing-along delight of “Even Better Than the Real Thing” with massive hooks and now- familiar riffs making it one of the five or six songs on the album that dominated radio top-forty lists at the time.

One” has, in all fairness, been overplayed to the point of contempt on classic rock channels. But, for a reason – it’s simply one of the most affecting/effective pop songs ever written. The beautiful swell of strings mid-song always send chills up my spine (Brian Eno to blame) and Bono’s somewhat ragged vocal delivery is convincing in it’s authentic yearning for reconciliation and transparency. Go ahead and listen to it again; focus on the way the elements of the song blend together in complete harmony, with the chord progression evoking melancholy but also hope for a better tomorrow. Super-simple but orchestrated , produced and performed in a way that vaults it into a class all of its own.

Thematically, the album deals with love and loss, U2 all grown up and having the hearts broken by the world, realizing that all their ideals and dreams were just that and the ‘real world’ can be a cold and lonely place. “In my dream, I was drowning my sorrows But my sorrows they learned to swim” – Until the End of the World.

Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” dives deeper into the pool of relationships, hurt and unmet desires. “So Cruel” has the most amazing live drum sound and, cranking it up on my main stereo system, makes the whole room shake with kick and tight, tight snare. The track is piano-driven with a string arrangement that is also top-notch (more Eno with the Edge ably assisting) and Daniel Lanois’ unmistakable jagged/wavy bass/guitar production evens out the sweetness. Bono delivers a typically impassioned performance and his voice soars, effortlessly falsetto when he needs it to be, and fills the track with emotion – desperation and pain mingled with hopelessly love-struck yearning.

The Fly” rocks out from the start (you probably remember Bono wearing the dark glasses on videos for the track and on tour promoting the album). Great big guitar sound and solo in the middle highlights the Edge’s chops and makes one realize how much he contributes to the unique U2 sound; they’d be a totally different band without him. I believe they are one of those bands that will just stop if one of the members wants out or becomes unavailable in some other way. They are all irreplaceable to the totality of the sound and organism that is U2.

Mysterious Ways” is another track played to death on rock radio but is nonetheless worth listening to again if only to sing along! “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is more laid-back and abstract than the rest of the tracks but has great interlude with Bono lifting his voice into that high register where he demonstrates that he can, in fact, sing with the greats. “Ultra Violet(Light My Way)” is probably the most straightforwardly U2 song on the album with familiar the Edge jangle and chord progression.

Acrobat” has a Lanois trademark sound and pattern with ebb and swell of guitar with a sentiment surely echoed, or at least favored by Lou Reed (“don’t let the bastards grind you down”). The album ends on a dramatic flourish with “Love is Blindness“; pipe organ sound into big echoing bass line, piano and Bono’s vocals with a lot of reverb (possibly affecting a church-like setting) . The lyrics are bitter-sweet and emotional and, as usual, expertly performed but the stand-out element is the guitar solo- it’s the epitome of restraint and expression; no theatrics or showing off, just a thoughtful and beautiful example of the art of making music that makes us feel.

Let me know if you agree/disagree with my take on this album in the comments section; maybe it is I that is deluded and seduced by the artistry, passion and culmination of experience that went into the creation of Achtung Baby!

Published by Rick Adams

Husband, father, music lover

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