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ACHTUNG BABY (1991)
Achtung Baby - Click to view!Achtung Baby is a strange name for an album; a mixture of German with English slang. The name raises questions in the hearer and gives an impression of indecisiveness, of incoherence perhaps, and experimentation. But on a literal level, the words create another idea. Basically meaning "hey baby!", the name also serves as a parody of love, a kind of all-time worst pick-up line. Both of these aspects are keys to the album, for it is a work of both experimentation and less-than-subtle cynicism.

Musically, Achtung Baby is a fascinating album completely separate from U2's previous sound. Achtung was released three years after the less-than-successful Rattle and Hum, the Irish quartet's indecisive album of both concert tracks and forays into the history of American music. Achtung abandons this genre completely, shifting from old-time stadium rock to a more modern, cutting-edge sound. The album is full of techno rhythms and guitar distortions from The Edge, with only Larry Mullen's straightforward, pneumatic drumming providing a link to the band's older music. Bono's singing and songwriting have changed too; Achtung's songs are more emotional, and even introspective, but without the awkwardness that marked some of Bono's earlier efforts. Now he writes songs that, to quote the Edge, just "arrive," growing to remarkable emotional intensity.

Achtung Baby, however, is more than just one Irish band's dabblings in music. The title also reflects the album's focus—the ugly side of human love, especially from a man's perspective. This, happily, is not the saccharine, platitudinous, "Oooooh baaabyyy" love that fills pop culture. An album of this kind would hardly be unique. Instead, U2 crafted songs about human love, love that can and does go wrong. In one sense, this album walks through everything that can go wrong with the relationship between a man and a woman.

It is fitting that the album open with "Zoo Station"'s distortions; as the song begins, Bono's lyrics seem like something heard while half-asleep, like something in a dream. Bono awakens from his stupor of love, commits himself to living a real life, and begins to look critically at his previous. "Even Better Than the Real Thing" immediately diagnoses his relationship's first problem, lust. Lines like "let me be your lover tonight" make the emotion of the song obvious; unless you see it in album context, the song borders on the offensive. The next two songs deal with betrayal in the relationship; "One" and "Until the End of the World," while radically different in style, both show the singer's guilt. He has not been what he should have been, he has deceived his lover. Then the perspective changes. "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" is a confused song, constantly changing its style. This echoes the singer's confusion; she, whoever she is, has left him, and he doesn't know what to think. He blames her, he blames himself, he blames fate and nature, and finally he ends up undecided.

With "So Cruel", Bono comes full circle. Now, all the guilt in the relationship is the woman's, the seductress's. She has been unfaithful, and her emotional detachment has all but destroyed the singer. The next song, "The Fly", acts almost as an interlude to the album. Bono steps back and lets loose his full anger, not only at the depravity of the world but also at himself. The acidic wit of the song is remarkable; Bono condemns himself and all artist cannibals and thieves, who "kill their inspiration \ then sing about the grief." The interlude from emotional anguish continues with "Mysterious Ways", a catchy ode to the fact that men don't understand women, but the two love each other anyway.

The last third of the album returns to scathing examinations of what's wrong with love. "Acrobat" is a powerful song, and while it doesn't link directly to any relationship, the lyrics are an overwhelming admission of guilt and remorse for his wrongdoing. The singer has ruined everything he has ever had; even God has utterly rejected him, and only now does he see not only his error, but also his utter inability to do otherwise. Then, with "Ultraviolet" there is uneasy reconciliation. The singer returns to his lover, but the past haunts them; they cannot trust each other as they once did, because that trust has been betrayed. Finally, to end the album, Bono removes himself from the relationship once again and looks down on human emotions. This time however, the mood has changed; "Love is Blindness" sounds more grieved than angry. Having looked at everything that can trouble human love, Bono admits that his insights won't change anything. If you really love someone, you will ignore all these unpleasant possibilities and simply love more intently. Human love is blind.

Achtung Baby is a cynical album with no final redemption or hope. This is the sound of the underside of Europe, the seedy fleabag hotels, the back-alleys and drugs. U2, leading into the album's production, had spent time exploring this side of Europe, and their experiences seem to have seeped heavily into their work, both in the willingness to try new and untested music and the lyrical realization that humans can be cruel to each other. As a result, Achtung Baby is a musically and emotionally rich experience, but it is the emotion of guilt and despondency that fills the songs, not that of love or joy.
- Fraser Martens
April 2004
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