"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Uncut NOVEMBER 2011 - by Stephen Dalton
U2: ACHTUNG BABY - 20TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION
Their dark, ironic classic - with all the extras you could want. Bar a Trabant.
The first of the bold reinventions that would propel U2 through their most adventurous decade, Achtung Baby went down in history as the album on which the world's most po-faced Irishmen learned how to dance, laugh at themselves, and savour their own surreal celebrity. A mere twenty-five years after the rest of the world, Bono twigged that great rock stars should be more Keith Richards than Cliff Richard. Better late than never.
U2 began recording Achtung Baby in late 1990 in a newly reunited Berlin. This myth-steeped metropolis served not just as studio location but as lyrical and emotional source material, as well as visual inspiration for the band's accompanying Zoo TV tour, with its cyberpunk backdrop and Trabant car motifs.
Bono called U2's seventh album "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree". Achtung Baby certainly sounds more urban, more metallic, more funky, more European, more playful, more post-modern and more ironic than the band's previous decade of Celtic-tinged Americana. Brian Eno was crucial in this evolutionary shift. He devised a vocabulary for the new U2: "trashy", "dark", "sexy" and "industrial" were good; "earnest", "polite" and "sweet" forbidden.
Many critics at the time, myself included, felt U2's much-trumpeted alt.rock makeover was a cynical bid to stake a claim in rock's very own New World Order alongside more credible acts like Nirvana, Primal Scream and The Stone Roses. Two decades and eighteen million sales later, Achtung Baby's sonic shock value has diminished in the context of 1991's other 'classics' - it lacks the bite of Nevermind or the scale of Screamadelica. But this is still a commendably ambitious album.
From the heavily processed guitar snarls that open Zoo Station, we are clearly not in Kansas anymore. Then, the grimy disco-rock confessionals The Fly and Even Better Than The Real Thing introduce Bono's new shades-wearing lizard-crooner persona, a kind of sci-fi Elvis who has swapped righteous preaching for sinful sleaze: "It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest..."
But at heart, behind the self-consciously ironic surface, Achtung Baby is also one of U2's bleakest albums. Partly inspired by the breakdown of The Edge's first marriage, post-mortem ballad One is the band's most potent heartbreak anthem. Sexual temptation and betrayal oozes through So Cruel and Love Is Blindness, while Bono even narrates the muscular biblical rocker Until The End Of The World from the viewpoint of a sardonic, unrepentant Judas.
This anniversary reissue comes in multiple formats, but only obsessives with very deep pockets will want the Uber Deluxe box-set with its six CDs of music, four DVDs of videos and documentaries, lavish photo book, Anton Corbijn art prints, Fly sunglasses and tons more junk. However, most formats include Achtung Baby's essential 1993 sister album Zooropa, a "quick and dirty" sequel that comes with less conceptual baggage, but a bolder feel. The falsetto-voiced space-funk of Lemon, Stay (Faraway, So Close!) and the sublime electro-gospel Johnny Cash collaboration The Wanderer match anything on its more fêted sibling.
Shared between the various reissue packages are four discs of B-sides, bonus tracks, remixes and rarities. U2's clumsy, embrace of rave culture is reflected in their conservative choice of collaborators on two fitfully interesting remix discs, with superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold and big-beat chart-stompers Apollo 440 supplying most of the Ibiza-trance crescendos and trip-hop shuffle-beats. Also included in the deluxe packages is Kindergarten, an album of rough drafts and demos. Most are poor cousins of the polished versions, though the acoustic version of One has a raw almost Johnny Cash-like austerity.
But the real buried treasure here comes with the ultra-rare album-session offcuts, most previously unavailable except as bootlegs or fanclub - only exclusives. These include Heaven And Hell, a noir-ish doo-wop lullaby sung in Bono's Sam Cooke-like falsetto, the Eno-esque ambient instrumental Near The Island, and doleful word-painting Oh Berlin, which name-checks fellow born-again Berliners Bowie, Iggy and Lou Reed. Quality gear, adding depth and soul to the project.
In the years since, U2 never quite shook off the bombast that Achtung Baby was supposed to absolve - Davis Guggenheim's po-faced new doc From The Sky Down, included in the DVDs here, underlines this painfully. But we need not buy into the band's myth-making to appreciate this record: two decades on, it remains U2's brightest, darkest, finest hour.