U2 – Achtung Baby (Deluxe Edition) (Universal/Island)

The U2 reissue program continues with 1991’s Achtung Baby, just in time for its 20th anniversary. I think the best reason for reissues is that it gives the listener a chance to re-evaluate an album, put it in some kind of context and basically see if it stands up after time or has simply become an artefact of when it was originally released.

For me, Achtung Baby is prime for re-evaluation. When it was originally released in 1991 it seemed, at least to me, to have been somewhat obscured musically by up-and-comers like Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Nine Inch Nails. Despite the fact that U2’s previous studio album, 1987’s The Joshua Tree, was the band’s most successful to date, both commercially and (arguably) artistically, four years was a long time and U2 seemed to come from a previous musical age in 1991.

Also, despite the fact that Achtung Baby spawned several big hits (Mysterious Ways, One, Even Better Than The Real Thing) the music seemed to get overshadowed by the hype surrounding the Zoo TV tour and Bono’s alter-ego as “The Fly”.

So now, listening to Achtung Baby, without those distractions, I must say that it is a very impressive piece of work. The hits still sound good, but it’s tracks like So Cruel, Ultra Violet and Acrobat that make Achtung Baby a candidate for “best U2 album ever”.

Musically, the band was trying to get away from their hallmark sound, which was solidified on The Joshua Tree. Opening track, Zoo Station begins with a blast of distorted guitar and an equally distorted vocal from Bono. The track acts as a palate-cleanser, opening the listener’s mind to what they are about to hear and (hopefully) getting them to set aside their preconceptions as to what U2 should sound like. It works. Zoo Station is, for lack of a better term, “edgier” than one would expect from the band, featuring industrial strength electronica and urgent percussion.

What follows is some of the most exciting and passionate music this band has made. The group and its producers (Eno, Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite) put together a fantastic potpourri of swirling electronic textures, inventive guitar licks and dynamic percussion. The album features some of Adam Clayton’s most dynamic bass lines…listen to the remastered version of Mysterious Ways or Until The End Of The World…and Bono’s lyrics have never been more emotive.

The album isn’t perfect. Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses sounds a bit over-produced, as does Love Is Blindness and Bono’s lyrics in Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World feature a few too many clichés.

The newly-remastered sound, overseen by The Edge, is excellent. Tracks like The Fly and One really open up sonically, especially on the bottom end.

The deluxe edition comes with a second disc of B-sides and bonus tracks. It is front-loaded with most of the good stuff in and among the first 5 or 6 tracks out of 14. Lady With the Spinning Head, Blow Your House Down and Salome all are strong enough songs that they could have easily fit on the original album and enhanced it. There are three cover versions…Satellite Of Love (Lou Reed), Paint It Black (Rolling Stones) and Fortunate Son (Creedence Clearwater Revival). None of them add much to the originals and U2’s version of Fortunate Son is truly awful…possibly the worst thing that they’ve done.  The bonus disc finishes with Where Did It All Go Wrong?, another fine original that was sent to musical purgatory as a B-side.

Hard core fans can spend as much money as they can scrape together for the even-more expanded versions of Achtung Baby. There are 5 in all with various amounts of CDs and DVDs, including live shows from the era, the Zooropa CD, music videos, etc.

One thing that is also available separately is the new documentary, From The Sky On Down. The film is about the making of Achtung Baby, and, if you’re a fan, you’ll want to check it out. Casual listeners of U2 may be put off by the hyperbole that comes with anything that features Bono speaking on camera, but once you get past that, there is a lot to admire here. I particularly enjoyed the segment where they show exactly how the creative process too place in the studio, resulting in the “birth” of the song One, as it was lifted from an evolving version of Mysterious Ways.

And that’s not all…

Q Magazine includes a CD called “Ahk-Toong-Bay-Bi Covered” with its latest issue. This is a step up from the usual freebies that come with magazines. Q has commissioned folks like Nine Inch Nails, Patti Smith, The Killers and Depeche Mode to record their own versions of songs from Achtung Baby.  The result rivals the original.

We get Nine Inch Nails performing a surprisingly melodic and quite sinister version of Zoo Station. Patti Smith takes on Until The End Of The World, accompanied by acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and drums. When Garbage follows Patti with Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, it’s obvious where Shirley Mansion got some of her influences from. Snow Patrol turns in a rather restrained version of Mysterious Ways and the Killers pull out all the stops on Ultra Violet, sounding very much like U2 being led by Brandon Flowers. Jack White closes the set with a wild, unhinged version of Love Is Blindness.

Well, that’s enough Achtung Baby material for now. I’ve come away with a new respect for the album. It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything U2 does next. Rumour has it they are working with Dangermouse…

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to Blow Your House Down from Achtung Baby Bonus Disc

Click here to listen to Patti Smith’s version of Until The End Of The World: