Discographically Speaking: U2 (part two)

Achtung Baby

1. Achtung Baby (1991)

“Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief / All would kill for inspiration, then sing about their grief.”

— “The Fly” (lyrics cribbed in part from artist Jenny Holzer)

No alarms, no surprises — This one and Joshua are universally regarded as the two essential U2 albums; it’s only a question of which one you rank first. What puts Achtung over the top is that it was the product of maybe the most daring, surprising, and wholly successful reinvention in the history of pop: In one album, U2 went from the dreary Po Faced Pilgrims of Rock (I’m quoting myself here) to swearing, swaggering postmodern pranksters, puncturing their own myth with more mirth and cruelty than their many detractors ever could. (“I’m taking bastard lessons,” quipped Bono at the time.)

The flippant title — an expression Mel Brooks utters frequently in “The Producers” — was, as Bono has pointed out, a con. Look past the big black bug shades he’d taken to wearing everywhere, or the photos of the band in drag on the album sleeve, and you could see that U2 hadn’t lightened up at all — they’d just turned the handicam, one of Bono’s key ZOO TV stage props, inward.

There were still big anthems: “One” showed up almost intact in a supernatural hour during what had up ’til then been a fraught and fruitless recording session in Berlin just after the wall came down. (They started the album at Hansa Ton Studios, where Eno had worked with David Bowie on three brilliant albums, Low, Heroes, and Lodger in the late 70s). “Until the End of the World” was U2’s “Stairway to Heaven,” a bonecrushing number about Jesus (yes, yes, I know) confronting Judas. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” was a perfectly-timed antidote to the authenticity-obsessed grunge movement happening at the same time. And nobody would have looked to these guys to write a sexy song you could dance to, but guess what? U2 move in “Mysterious Ways,” Baby!

The album cuts — “So Cruel,” “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” the smoky endgame “Love Is Blindness” — all hold their own against any U2 singles. Achtung Baby is the album that almost broke the band, and it is their masterpiece.

One of the many titles U2 considered for this album was Man, as a kind of bookend to 1980’s Boy. And one of the candidates for the cover was this photo of Adam Clayton, which you’ve probably only seen in a censored version if you bought your copy of Achtung Baby in the U.S.

You’re welcome.

Achtung Baby nude Adam Clayton

The Presidential campaign was in full swing when U2 brought the “Outside Broadcast” edition of their ZOO TV Tour to RFK Stadium here in the Capital of the Free World in August of 1992.

The show had started as a smaller, arena-scale production in Lakeland, Florida six months earlier.


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