Wednesday, November 7, 2007

[033] Achtung Baby

Album: Achtung Baby
Artist: U2
Release Date: November 1991
Label: Island
Producers: Daniel Lanois, with Brian Eno, Flood & Steve Lillywhite

“It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
The universe exploding cuz of one man’s lie
Look I gotta go, yeah, I’m running out of change
There’s a lot of things, if I could I’d rearrange”
- from “The Fly”

Why is it that, after all these years, U2 has almost become a parody of themselves? Surely, young would-be fans consider them as such, laughing at their earnestness. Music and technology moves so fast now that I sometimes wonder if my children will one day go back and discover U2 (or Nirvana or The White Stripes) the way I went back and discovered Hendrix and Zeppelin; in the specific case of Achtung Baby, I want them to want to do it, beyond just hoping that they have the attention spans to realize there’s music that isn’t 5 months old. U2 completely reinvented themselves in a way that no band as large as them ever had. I guess maybe you could look at The Stones’ Emotional Rescue as being a precursor, what with the Rock dinosaurs clumsily fumbling around in the disco, but that album sucked, and Achtung Baby was as big of a success as was possible. Even if you also consider Van Halen’s Roth/Hagar debacle, no band had done such a full sonic identity shift before. Achtung Baby actually scared the shit out of people; the corroded guitars of “The Fly” tore down the band’s entire history in one swing, laced with Bono’s creepy, sexual whisper and a quivering falsetto, and Larry clearly having listened to The Stone Roses. It’s kind of funny now – the changes are obviously there, but I’ve lived with the song for so long, it just sounds like what U2 sounds like; but when it came out, people wanted to fucking riot because Bono wasn’t talking about some open field. I remember MTV running the adds for the video premiere, and seeing Bono in his leather running down the street, not even knowing if it was talking about the same U2. The week of release, classmates sneaking out at lunch time to go buy it at the mall, and everyone was looking at the packaging in the hallways between classes, talking about, “I don’t know, ‘The Fly’ is OK, but I hope the rest is better than that”. No one knew what to think, with Bono in greasy hair and bug-eyed shades, Edge with a skullcap and a goatee instead of his trademark big-brimmed hat, not to mention the pictures with the band in drag. It was dark, dangerous, and sexy – everything Rock & Roll should be, and absolutely nothing that U2 had ever been before.

Scratch the surface a little, and you’ll find that at the time Bono and The Edge were the proponents of the dark new sound that U2 were experimenting with, while the rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. were perfectly happy continuing on the path laid out by The Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum. Bono wanted to totally get away from that though because of all the negative press dropped on R&H (We can’t have that cuz, of course, the massive ego must be stroked), and he repeatedly mentioned this album was the sound of “four men chopping down the Joshua Tree”. This was the basis for a lot of internal strife, with the band almost breaking up while recording in Berlin, and only healing the wounds when they wrote “One”. I don’t mean to discount any one member’s contribution to the powerhouse sound of this album, but, um, you’re in the biggest fuckin’ band in the world with Bono and The Edge!!! Go wherever they want to go, for your bank account’s sake! And it’s almost ironic that I say this considering that the first thing that is especially important on Achtung Baby is that these four whiter-than-white boys found some funk somewhere in those hips, and shook it out – that’s the rhythm section’s job, and who knew they had it in them? I seem to remember Henry Rollins visiting The Howard Stern Show one time, calling Larry Mullen Jr. the worst drummer in music, and, you know, in the 80’s, well he wasn’t the worst, but the dude had like two beats, and that was it. And I’m pretty sure Adam Clayton knew like 5 or 6 notes, and his bass lines were just a messy hum. This album made them look good.

And the studio crew had a lot to do with that. The usual outfit of Lanois and Eno supported the shift, but the real factor to look at here is Mark “Flood” Ellis coming in to mix the album. He had done Joshua Tree too, but a look at his credits and you’d realize that that was the most Rock album on the list; it wasn’t an accident that his credits included New Order, Ministry, Erasure, and especially NIN’s Pretty Hate Machine and Depeche Mode’s Violator. One listen to where he set the levels on “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World”, and you’d know immediately that this was a new U2, Clayton’s bass pushed so far into the red that it engulfed the whole song. On that song, and a lot of Achtung Baby, it sounded as if Mullen’s drums had been left out in the rain, and he was playing them soaked, having a distinct tinny clang. The polyrhythms of the Madchester bands pop up all over the album, spinning around, the band dizzy on the dancefloor for the first time. Even the opening of “Ultraviolet” suggests the ambient house of The Orb, an idea revisited on the cold horror of “Love Is Blindness”, closing the album with heart-stopping sexual violence and sheets of guitar noise.

Despite having one of the greatest performers as a frontman, U2 has always been and will always be The Edge’s show, and never more than on this album. His arsenal of sound grew exponentially, providing hope that even the best of them can still learn from the kids. The industrial roar that opens the album is one of the greatest single sounds in music history; it can shake your soul and make all your armhair stand at attention. And with that noise, they were reinvented. He was in the club for “Mysterious Ways”, a song that Michael Jackson wishes he recorded, dropping a sound that hasn’t been heard since, and while that funky little guitar break is totally John Squire, the breakdown right before it is so Cypress Hill. Released only two weeks earlier, but with preceding singles and EPs stretching back over a year, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless also weighed heavily on Edge’s choice of squall, raining down on multiple tracks; when he takes that sound and crashes the opening chord into “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”, fans’ heads must’ve been exploding. Some of the tones he had used before, but he transformed them simply by sitting on the wah-wah pedal, dipping them in funk. Even “Even Better Than The Real Thing”, which is basically “In God’s Country” – The Sequel, is pretty delicious, Edge is karate chopping his guitar along to Bono’s pick-up lines.

Bono’s lyrics and vocal technique evolved (or devolved) heavily on this album, almost completely abandoning the soapbox of the past, and instead dealing with introspection and relationship issues in cynical and jaded swipes. This time when he talked about religion, he talked about guilt and regret, from Judas’ perspective on “Until The End Of The World”, and in the disillusion of “Acrobat”, looking for a movement he “could believe in”. He sang in whispers, moans, his fragile falsetto, even a lazy talk-sing style utilizing the natural low rumble of his voice. He wasn’t trying to project to the rafters anymore, and yet he was still exhaling with every line, pushing his voice hard from the diaphragm, giving each line a sexy sigh. For years he had been Lennon, he had been Marley, and you can hear the Marley cracks in his voice on “One”, but now he was Morrison, he was Plant, he was Presley’s swiveling hips in his second-hand ’68 Comeback outfit. He had an out of body experience on “Zoo Station”, and played pained Soul man on the delicate “So Cruel”. Achtung Baby remains his best performance, vocally and otherwise, accompanied by the best batch of songs of the band’s career. Achtung Baby will always remain one of the best albums of all time because U2 held the top of the mountain for so long. Being the biggest doesn’t necessarily mean you’re the best, but in their long career, for maybe a few months, they were the best, burying the past and looking toward the future like no band had ever done before.

01. "Zoo Station"
02. "Even Better Than The Real Thing"
03. "One"
04. "Until The End Of The World"
05. "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses"
06. "So Cruel"
07. "The Fly"
08. "Mysterious Ways"
09. "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World"
10. "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)"
11. "Acrobat"
12. "Love Is Blindness"

"The Fly" [video]

"One" [video - Anton Corbjin version]

"Until The End Of The World" [live in Boston, 06.01]
from the Elevation 2001: U2 Live In Boston DVD

"Love Is Blindness" [video]

- BONUS: "Zoo Station" [live in Sydney, 11.93]
from the Zoo TV: Live In Sydney DVD
- BONUS: "Even Better Than The Real Thing" [video]
- BONUS: "Even Better Than The Real Thing" [live from Detroit, 09.02]
live hook-up with the VMA's, featuring Garth Algar
- BONUS: "One" [video - Phil Joanou version]
- BONUS: "One" [video - "Buffalo version"]
- BONUS: "Until The End Of The World" [live in Sydney, 11.93]
from the Zoo TV: Live In Sydney DVD
- BONUS: "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" [single version - video]
- BONUS: "The Fly" [live in Boston, 06.01]
from the Elevation 2001: U2 Live In Boston DVD
- BONUS: "Mysterious Ways" [video]
- BONUS: "Mysterious Ways" [live in Sydney, 11.93]
from the Zoo TV: Live In Sydney DVD
- BONUS: "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World" [live in Sydney, 11.93]
from the Zoo TV: Live In Sydney DVD
- BONUS: "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" [live in Washington DC, 1992]
- BONUS: "Acrobat" [audio/fan video]

No comments: