Friday, November 18, 2011

Albums2010 #49: Achtung Baby

I'm not convinced this is as good as The Joshua Tree. But then again, I really think that U2 peaked with The Joshua Tree and it's been more or less downhill ever since for the lads from Ireland. However, in making that assessment, I never really took the time to actually do an up close and personal listen of the follow-up to The Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby.

There's a nice contrast between Joshua and Achtung that's worth exploring, I think. To me, what makes Joshua beautiful is it's scale. It was very much an album of place, a product of it's setting in the American west. You hear songs like 'Where The Streets Have No Name' and it's everything west. West of here, east of the ocean. It's big, bombastic and beautiful. I'll always love it.

Achtung is a little different. It took me a little bit to twig to it, because when the casual listener thinks Achtung Baby, I think they think of 'Mysterious Ways' and 'One' and that's pretty much it. If you're a bit of a U2 fan you'll dig deeper and the contrast becomes clearer. This is a break with U2's previous sound- they're moving into darker, edgier, industrial territory with elements of electronica and alternative rock thrown in for good measure.

A scan of Wikipedia (the font of all knowledge) reveals this was a tough record for U2: they came close to breaking up over it and seeking inspiration on the eve of German reunification, they recorded part of the album in Berlin only to find the German capitol wrapped in a malaise that didn't help matters any. Ironically, the band smoothed over their difficulties when they came together and broke through on the writing of 'One'.

As for the album itself: Basically, the first five tracks of the album are good. Really, really good. 'Zoo Station' is a growling, explosive opener that serves notice that this isn't going to be The Joshua Tree or Rattle and Hum, so buckle up. 'Even Better Than The Real Thing', 'One', 'Until The End Of The World' and 'Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses' all build the album nicely. I didn't really have an issue with this album until I got to track number 6, 'So Cruel'- where Bono gets a little too... moaney, wailey? I don't know. He gets annoying.

He makes up for it one the next track with 'The Fly'- 'Mysterious Ways' (which follows 'The Fly') is classic U2- and probably one of the more radio friendly tracks they've got in their catalogue. 'Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World' slows things down nicely- but Bono keeps his moaning and wailing under control. 'Ultra Violet' features some wicked bass and guitar work. 'Acrobat' is nice and then it closes with 'Love Is Blindness'. Over all, it's a nice departure for U2- not as a political- Bono hasn't quite reached his peak of saving Africa from absolutely everything yet and the band really explores personal themes, probably, I would venture to guess mirroring some of the tensions in the band at the time.

Their sound shifts too, which is one of the things you have to admire about U2. You go from angry young Irish men in War to big, bombastic rock in The Joshua Tree to more hardcore, edgy, industrial sounding electronica type of sounds in Achtung Baby- that despite the shift in their sound, still remains fundamentally, rock n'roll.

Overall: I remain steadfast in my love for the The Joshua Tree- however, kids, I'm forced to admit that if you're going to go through the grueling process of deciding what are the best U2 albums ever made, you've got to put this one up there. Maybe, just maybe, it comes in second behind War. Maybe- and if it does, it's by the skin of it's teeth. But still- a very good album!

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