Mojo DECEMBER 2011 - by Danny Eccleston


U2: Achtung Baby - 20th Anniversary Edition

Multi-format regurg-a-thon of the Dublin quartet's 1991 glitterball reinvention. Includes book, badges, Fly specs and rockdoc - if you've got £250 to spare.

"If you lose faith in words and pictures," says Bono, sucking a cheroot in a 1993 feature on Channel 4 music show Naked City, "you're left with instinct, which is music."

The clip, included on a bonus DVD in the Super Deluxe and Uber Deluxe versions of this reissue behemoth, says a lot. At the turn of the '90s U2 had lost faith in all sorts of things. The Edge's first marriage was on the rocks and the future of the group, riven by splits between "the hats" (Edge, Bono) and "the haircuts" (Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen Jr), was in the balance. But out of it came a radical refreshment of their music, an integration of dance rhythms (too late for hipsters but just in time for U2's audience) and lyrics that traded the sacred for the profane.

In the beginning, they were groping in the dark - something made clear by this portmanteau's "Kindergarten" CD of working versions. Seeking an avatar for a funkier, more sensual U2, the group looked initially not to The Happy Mondays but to The Rolling Stones, whose lurching riffage glares through a prequel of Even Better Than The Real Thing and a lumpy cast-off called Blow Your House Down. Then there's Bono's OTT attempt at a "sexy" lyric for Heaven & Hell, wherein his "brass bed becomes a mud bath". Dirty work, indeed.

The alchemical moment at Achtung Baby's floundering Berlin sessions was One, a humble middle-eight rescued from a protean Mysterious Ways called Sick Puppy, and turned into their most honest, conflicted, touching and real song about human relationships ("Did I disappoint you?"), one Edge is always horrified that people play at weddings. The drama of its discovery is the high-point of Davis Guggenheim's excellent documentary, From The Sky Down - again included in the Super Deluxe version of this reissue - but if it's so central (and it is) why no Sick Puppy on the outtakes CD?

One set out Achtung Baby's spiritual terrain, but not the shiny, discofied veneer that clads its pumping anthems. In 1991, fault-finders thought these contrived, but twenty years later it's surprising - even to an admirer - how they have matured, and the luminous, viscous quality of Zoo Station and grimy lope of The Fly do not at any point make you think of The Soup Dragons. Not bad for a band and production team (Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite - a bit) with no previous for anything of this sort. U2 were sliding down the surface of things, critiquing what they celebrated (and vice versa), but they were still U2, and the wounded eyes of the man who sings So Cruel - this record's most underrated song - are all-too visible behind the iconic rock star sunglasses (replica pair included in Uber Deluxe package).

Ater Achtung Baby came the groundbreaking Zoo TV tour - arena spectacle with its tongue in its cheek, horror and humour combined in Bono's satanic alter ego, MacPhisto - and Zooropa, an album made on tour to keep the creative juices flowing. Its inclusion on Achtung Baby 2011's Super and Uber Deluxe versions is logical - it is part of the bigger picture. It also helps illustrate how U2's new aesthetic got quickly out of hand, engendering a new kind of superstar self-indulgence - plastered with an ironic smirk - that peaked with the pumped-up meaninglessness of PopMart, the tour that sold their not-quite-finished l99l album, Pop.

Yet U2's turn-of-the-'90s undertaking to "dream it all up again" remains an inspiration to groups in a similar bind, and a lesson today's U2 might heed. Their ongoing scrap for Biggest Band status - successful, against all odds, for so long - is beginning to look less good on them, and their last album, 2009's No Line On The Horizon, was compromised by tunes like Get On Your Boots and I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy the contemporary pop "marketplace".

For all that Achtung Baby rebuilt a band to survive and thrive, commercially, in the '90s, it was nothing if not true to what stirred inside the hearts and minds of U2 as one decade became another. Now, like then, it's time for a change.