52 Albums That Changed My Life (and Other Exaggerations), Chapter 34: Achtung Baby
U2 is one of those bands that fans may only like one particular album in their career or a particular phase. In most people my age, it’s The Joshua Tree era. It’s kind of hard to argue that in many ways. With The Joshua Tree, U2 became the biggest band in the world for a number of years. It’s also a fairly solid album.
But not their best album.
While it may be blasphemy to some fans, Achtung Baby is not only my favorite U2 album, but I would propose that it is their best album.
Before the release of Achtung Baby, I was familiar with U2, it was really hard not to be during that time period, but I wasn’t a fan. I liked what I heard but I didn’t grab on to anything. I remember staying up late at a friend’s house to watch a late night music video show (on either CBC or City as they didn’t have cable) and U2 came on I didn’t really get what the big deal was.
Then Achtung Baby came out… and I promptly ignored it.
I’m not sure why I just didn’t really pay attention to the album. I think I had mentally shelved it with other U2 songs I had heard and didn’t want to waste the time on it.
Until The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness, a concert which changed a lot of things for me musically but it introduced me to Achtung Baby via satellite.
Achtung Baby had been out for a number of months by the Freddie Tribute rolled around. The band was on tour and participated via satellite and performed “Until the End of the World.” Bono was in his “Fly” get up, the band looked cooler on a whole, the song sounded amazing. Why hadn’t I paid attention before?
I would go on to hear one or two more songs on the radio before I would get the album in July of that summer as a birthday present.
An amazingly solid album from top to bottom. U2 was in a period of experimentation, trying new sounds and new ideas with their songs. As a younger kid at the time, those sounds completely caught my attention. From then on I became a fan of U2 fan. I do not own every album they’ve done but there are some I really like. I think that All That You Can’t Leave Behind is particularly great as is Zooropa (yes, I really like Zooropa, we’ll come back to it in a bit) and The Joshua Tree.
So why does Achtung Baby tower over The Joshua Tree for me?
Simply, I think the song writing is better.
Here’s where I get a little tricky. I think the hits from The Joshua Tree are among the best songs U2 has ever written. It’s hard to deny how good “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “With or Without You” are because they are really good. Where I will probably get yelled at by some of you is that I feel Joshua Tree has a fair amount of filler in it.
I can name you the singles off Joshua Tree off the top of my head. They are that good. But once you get out of the singles, I’d be hard-pressed to name the other songs. They aren’t bad but they are just kind of there.
Achtung Baby, on the other hand, is song after song of awesome. The songs are also tracked perfectly, one just leads into another. There is a balance between the experimentation and what U2 had become really good at. Achtung Baby is the album that almost captures the amazing band that U2 is live (although, none of their albums have quite gotten that yet). You have amazing ballads like “One” and “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” as well as great up beat tracks like “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “The Fly.”
For me, my favorite tracks are “Until the End of the World,” “The Fly,” and “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” but that can change depending on my mood and what day of the week it is.
The thing about U2 that I love but also drives me nuts is that they tend to work in a three album format. They get kind of a theme idea for the music they want to work on, nail it, play with it a bit more and then the band goes away for a while only to return with a new set of sounds. And sometimes this back fires. With The Unforgettable Fire, The band begins working on sounds and ideas and dip their toes into the well of “American” music that then comes into full promise with The Joshua Tree and then they go a little overboard with Rattle and Hum. A similar thing happens during the Achtung era; Achtung Baby nails it right out of the gate, Zooropa goes off into a weird but cool experimental area, taking what they had done with Achtung and expanding the idea and then Pop is the band pushing some of those ideas a little too far.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll take a “not as good as…” album from U2 any day of the week because while I ultimately feel Achtung Baby is U2’s best work, the rest of it is always worth a listen and is usually pretty good.
4 thoughts on “52 Albums That Changed My Life (and Other Exaggerations), Chapter 34: Achtung Baby”
> U2 is one of those bands that fans may only like one particular album in their career
Hah and Achtung Baby is mine. Born in ’82 though.
That said my taste pretty quickly changed from U2 more to bands like KMFDM (Mysterious Ways cover)
Also my favourite U2 record – for a lot of the same reasons the author describes. Although their releases in the 2000’s never really grabbed me like their previous 2 decades of material did, they’re still an amazing live band.
Funny how we all have our difference of opinions. I love all the 80’s U2 albums more than any of their other work. Boy, October, War, Under a Blood Red Sky, The Unforgettable Fire, and of course Joshua Tree. While I love the hits from Joshua Tree, to me some of the greatest songs from that album are on side 2. This is when the band really goes deep. Exit, Mothers of the Disappeared, and In God’s Country, which is probably my favourite song from the entire album. It’s all killer with no filler at all.
Achtung Baby is interesting, I do like some of the tracks, but I think Mysterious Ways is really just a cheap pop song.
Personally I think one of their best all time albums is The Unforgettable Fire. The title track is great and that whole album just has this overall mood and sound that I really love. I believe Steve LilyWhite produced that one. Either way I just wanted to give my two cents.
Love ya Alan!
I would have agreed with this until this summer. Achtung Baby had always been the magnificent U2 album for me. Joshua Tree and Unforgettable Fire were kinda tied for second place.
I’m a devoted U2 follower back to the release of the Boy album. I generally see at least different 100 live performances annually, and few live up to a U2 concert. I’ve seen dozens of U2 shows over the years. It has become a spiritual experience for me seeing them live – it takes me to another place and frankly I am best seeing their shows alone because I want no distractions. I saw 4 shows on this summer’s Joshua Tree 30 tour – Vancouver, Toronto, Dublin and Paris. Each different in their own way. The band is playing better now than they ever have (they reached an entirely new level as a band on the I&E tour). And I think they played Joshua Tree this summer like they would like to re-record it. The songs are truly incredible and renewed, and I heard them differently than I ever have. Exit has the anger and rage now that Bullet the Blue Sky has always had. Red Hill Mining Town is absolutely glorious and gorgeous. I love the roots elements of Trip Through Your Wires that now shine through for me. The sorrow captured in Mothers of the Disappeared. We’ve never really had a chance to hear these songs live much since the recording (Red Hill Mining Town never until Vancouver this year). So I think it’s always meant we rarely get past listening to the anthemic opening 4 songs seriously when we spin the album.
But what I learned most hearing the album front to back live, and getting lost in the truly amazing video at the show is that Joshua Tree is the quintessential album about America. The America of dreams, and the ugly and real America. The band may know America better than any American band, and better than most Americans (which I am not). And I’ve learned that Joshua Tree is the most complete story U2 has ever told, and one that is even more real and relevant 30 years later. Thus it has overtaken Achtung Baby on my list.