When the Irish band went to Berlin, roped in Brian Eno, and pressed the restart button.
Martin Aston 2011
Hearing again The Edge’s dizbusting guitar and Larry Mullen Jr’s clanking beat that introduced Achtung Baby, it’s hard to believe that, only one album before, U2 were hanging out with BB King and getting lost in a blind alley of American roots music. Bands that broke through in the halcyon days of post-punk ended up in worse places than Rattle and Hum, but U2 themselves knew they’d lost their way. And so it proved. Having secured Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to produce 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire after the similarly blustery devices of War, they rehired the pair and decamped to Berlin in the physical and metaphysical spirit of David Bowie’s Eno-assisted rebirth (aka Low, "Heroes" and Lodger) and pressed the restart button.
Twenty years on, Achtung (German for "Attention") Baby still sounds zestful and compelling, with some of U2’s all-time highs. One could be the best of them all, a brooding soul ballad oozing confrontation and hurt that manages to unearth some musical US DNA within their Irish selves by doing it without Rattle and Hum’s self-consciousness and silly hats. Until the End of the World reconnects with the sleek and rousing rockers of their 1980 debut Boy; but, pardon the cliché, they now sounded like men, resilient and even cynical. Even when U2 deployed arena-courting dynamics on Even Better Than the Real Thing and Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, the efforts didn’t feel hollow. The debut of ‘mirrorball’ U2 on The Fly succeeded because they had no precedent or fear at this point. By the time of 1997’s Pop album, they were second-guessing and falling short of Achtung Baby’s bench-setting standards.
As supporting characters, So Cruel, Acrobat and Love Is Blindness (more soulful smouldering and multi-tiered Edge drama) are hardly second-rate. If the second CD of B sides and bonuses lacks anything comparable, Salome and the vampy cover of Satellite of Love will float some boats. But you can see why the unreleased Blow Your House Down didn’t even make it as a B side: it’s deeply average considering the invention going on elsewhere, namely invention that helped U2 back on course to embrace the world stage while retaining their soul (as R.E.M. and, later on, Radiohead managed without a Rattle and Hum-style wobble).
But achtung! One fight U2 has lost is to retain the image of bassist Adam Clayton’s penis on the inside cover, now hidden behind a big black cross that resembles an act of Christian censorship. Twenty years on? More like 50 years ago…