Music Reviews
Achtung Baby: Deluxe Edition

U2 Achtung Baby: Deluxe Edition

(Island) Rating - 7/10

It’s very easy to hate U2; for many, slandering against U2 (other heavy-hitting alternative acts like Coldplay get the same treatment) is a second language.  And there is a point for all the slander: U2’s career since ’97 has been flatter than a pancake, Bono has become the posterboy for the obnoxious bridge between singers and activists, and collectively, the egos of the four band members would only be a little larger than the state of Texas.  It’s difficult, however, to forget that at a point in time there was, in fact, a reason for U2’s status as “the biggest band in the world.”  Their roots as an Irish punk band in the late 70s led to new wave cult status throughout the early 80s up until their pop breakthrough with War and The Unforgettable Fire.  Then, the ultimate (and seemingly inevitable) burst into stadium arena rock begins with The Joshua Tree

U2 had managed to reinvent themselves from new wave into a pop sensation that was not pop, but was an ambient-obsessed Irish rock band deeply immersed in American roots.  There’s an intriguing sublimity in The Joshua Tree that was lost on the subsequent tour release Rattle and Hum, which found U2 gloating in self-importance and a narcissistic fascination with their pending history (a low that they’ve returned to).  Thankfully, this pompous gloating led to yet another metamorphosis; this time, U2 would retreat to a much darker, Eurocentric approach, which would become 1991’s Achtung Baby.

U2 had tapped into something truly incredible with Achtung Baby, and it permeated throughout their sound, their attitude, and their appearance.  The feeble need to be included with the ranks of Dylan, Elvis, and The Beatles (all of whom were touched on throughout Rattle and Hum) had dissipated, and now their focus was creating the culture of postmodern materialism.  With the giant TV screens, the theatrical tour, and Bono’s newfound obsession with sunglasses, it seems ridiculous to consider that Achtung Baby and the subsequent Zoo TV tour were critical of the Western religiosity of consumerism, but it is exactly what U2 stood for.  Achtung Baby is in that light a concept album relating to love, love-lost, and finding humanity in a culture obsessed with instant, electronic gratification and consumption. 

Zoo Station opens the album with a dystopian ode to submission into electronic sedation and complacency, “I’m ready, I’m ready for the laughing gas.”  To imagine that these lyrics were penned by the same lyricist who wrote Where the Streets Have No Name is difficult, as the lyrics move from images of open expanses of human freedom to the cynical image of their audience, “with your face pressed up against the glass” (an image that seems only more apropos in an age of iPods, MacBooks, and iPads). 

The band is alive and they reach some of the greatest peaks of their career, from the climax at the end of The Fly to the strange, eerie, and beautiful sounds and screeches in So Cruel (a sound Radiohead would later recreate in Fake Plastic Trees).  The Edge explores textures that shine a light of hope throughout the bleak lyrics of humanistic decay, and his distorted riffs and effects elevate the rock and roll coolness of Until the End of the World, The Fly, and Mysterious Ways.  The influence of industrial and electronica can be seen on Larry Mullen Jr., whose drums are affected with electronic effects that only further contrasts the expressive genius of The Edge and Bono.  And while Adam Clayton is the butt of most jokes for his unimaginative bass lines, no one can deny the groove he adds to Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World.

Achtung Baby is arguably U2’s greatest achievement, and it’s arguably one of the greatest albums of all time.   However, it was made by four Irish assholes, too in love with their legacy to admit that even such an incredible album could use some remastering.  The Edge’s recent comments that the album has not be remastered but instead “polished” enacts an entirely different perception of how U2 perceive Achtung Baby.  When The Stone Roses was remastered in 2009, there was clear evidence that a remaster could completely alter an album’s listening experience – in this case for the better.  When U2 have the opportunity to remaster Achtung Baby, rather than enhance the downplayed rhythm section and give the album more atmosphere and bring out some of Eno’s masterful sounds and effects, they bypass the remaster and go straight for the reissue – as I’m sure you’ve seen, there are probably more editions of the reissued set than there are songs on the album.

I’m assuming that you, the average consumer, have not purchased the $500 “uber-deluxe box set”, and instead opted for at most the 2-disc set.  This second disc, while it touches on some of the remixes that began U2’s tenure throughout the 90s remix culture, also brings in some bogus covers the band did of The Rolling Stones, Lou Reed, and CCR.  As if to expand the worst aspects of Rattle and Hum, these covers are unimaginative at best, and show a band still on a self-righteous course towards the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  All is momentarily right when the classic Temple Bar Mix of Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses makes an appearance.  And there’s some interesting insight considering what was left off Achtung Baby, such as the excellent b-sides Lady With the Spinning Head and Salome

These tracks are not enough to justify the second disc as anything more than marketing filler, so again, unless you’ve purchased the biggest, baddest, bank-breaking box set (complete with a replica of The Fly sunglasses), it would be smart to stick to the single-disc version.  Then again, if you already own the original album, you’re really not missing anything with this reissue.  The sound has only had minor touch-ups and the b-sides are those that could be found on nicer, more complete compilations.  Instead, stick with the original disc.  No filler, no bullshit – this is U2 at their finest moment, brilliantly caught between self-righteousness and postmodernism