It took me a pretty long time to really get into Achtung Baby. I was instantly drawn to “One” and “Mysterious Ways,” two of U2‘s most well-known songs, but I resisted the rest of the album because it just wasn’t inviting like The Joshua Tree (1987), the album that catapulted the band to international superstardom. (And, much later, my teenage world.) I do remember listening through Achtung Baby a couple of times and thinking it was very good, but it still failed to really leave an impression; it was just kind of there. It wasn’t until some months ago when I was stuck on a cross-country flight that I listened to Achtung Baby again and thought, “Whoa. What took me so long to get into this?” The answer, I think, is simpler than I initially thought. The Joshua Tree is a very warm record; it’s wide and lush with fertile landscapes and bright, airy textures.
Achtung Baby is cold and dark, using seemingly infinite layers of distortion to keep you at a distance. It’s just not an album that you can throw on and casually listen to. (At least, that’s been my experience.) It’s interesting to me that I can’t discuss Achtung Baby without comparing it to The Joshua Tree. The Joshua Tree is the first U2 album I got into, and I don’t think I’m alone in using it as the standard against which all of their other albums are judged. U2 followed up The Joshua Tree with Rattle and Hum (1988), a rockumentary that flopped miserably, forcing the band to retreat into the wilderness in bitter defeat for the first time in their careers. Everything about The Joshua Tree is outward and expansive. Achtung Baby is the opposite, with more introspective songwriting and dense, distorted soundscapes.
The exception is “One,” which is appropriately stripped to accommodate U2 at their most naked. I have long held the position that — at least as far as their songs are concerned — it’s their finest achievement. It’s really quite a personal song about Bono’s relationship with his father, but it has had many different applications over the years. It has that rare quality any great work of art has: it’s highly specific and unique but it also manages to be universal and mythic at the same time. It gets played at weddings and is also used for Bono’s never-ending fight against poverty. And considering U2 was thinking about breaking up during the Achtung Baby sessions until they managed to pull “One” out of the hat, it’s not a stretch to think of the song as indicative of how the band members were feeling towards each other during that difficult time. You wouldn’t expect such a personal song to be so elastic.
But Achtung Baby is way more than just “One.” (There’s probably a bad pun in there.) For starters, it’s arguably their most dynamic album. From the instant the opener “Zoo Station” starts, you know you’re in for something different. And it’s to U2’s credit that they managed to completely reinvent themselves with Achtung Baby, embracing the alternative rock era. The Joshua Tree is an ode to America, while Achtung Baby is decidedly European, recorded in Berlin — hence the title — where producer Brian Eno had previously recorded David Bowie’s albums Low (1977) and Heroes (1977).