Achtung!: U2 Revisited

It has now been 20 years since the release of u2’s seminal (and best) album Achtung Baby.  Alas, I was 11 years old at the time, so I have no real memory of it in those days.  My own discovery of Bono and boys didn’t happen until somewhere around the year 2000 with All That You Can’t Leave Behind.  Caught up in the reemergence of U2 in the brand new millennium, I delved deeply into their catalogue and came to love the group.  Though I feel they’ve staggered a bit over the past decade, I’m still a fan.

Eric Hynes of recently wrote “The U2 Paradox“, noting his preference for the atmospheric sound of the band at its best, and I like where he is going:

From The Unforgettable Fire forward, U2 has been at its best when Eno, along with studio protégés Daniel Lanois and Flood, have had a strong influence over the recording process—which is not to say that the studio team is responsible for U2’s best work. Eno is a genius at creating and opening sonic spaces, at challenging the listener to hear the familiar differently—thus his soft spot for perverting pop music—which actually suits rather than subverts U2’s strengths.

In a separate article, he rates the band’s albums, with Joshua TreeThe Unforgettable Fire and Achtung Baby taking the top spots and How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb and All That You Can’t Leave Behind on the bottom.  I disagree with him on the order of things, though admittedly I don’t have as a complex or integrated a theory of U2’s sound as he does.  In the spirit of things, I thought I’d give my list:

1.  Achtung Baby: Clearly the best and most complete of any U2 album.  It marked a turning point in their careers even as it did a turning point in world history.  Favorite lyric: “Your love was a light bulb/Hanging over my bed.”

2.  Pop:  A surprising choice.  Most people dislike the album, feel that it is incomplete and messy.  But with the exception of “Miami” and perhaps “If You Wear That Velvet Dress,” I think it there’s a lot to love there.  If you don’t believe me, listen to it again and get your hands on their Mexico City Popmart concert.

3.  Rattle and Hum:  All the benefits of Joshua Tree with none of the drawbacks.  A bluesy Irish-American travelogue.  Plus, the movie’s great.

4.  Zooropa: Achtung Baby, Par II.  Really a fun album, if we can forget the bizarre Johnny Cash cameo.  Lemon?  Love it.  Numb?  Terrific.  Vorsprung durch Technik.

5.  The Unforgettable Fire:  All that stuff about atmospheric music?  Yep, its in here.

6.  Joshua Tree:  Worth a higher spot for the Holy Trinity of U2 songs alone: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “With or Without You,” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”  But the album trails near the end, so much so that I never listen to the second half that much.

7.  All That You Can’t Leave Behind:  Formulaic and calculated?  Yes.  But a good effort that I look to fondly as the album that brought me on board.  Watching U2 play a mashup of “Wake Up Dead Man,” “Walk On,” and singing hallelujah via satellite feed in the days after 9/11 was enough to win me over….forever.

8.  How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb:  Some great songs including “Miracle Drug,” “Crumbs From Your Table,” and the powerful “Yahweh.”  Bono’s Africa album, I think.

9.  War:  Horribly stuck in the 80s in many ways.  But driving to high school with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” blaring on the radio made me love this stage of the band’s life.  And “40” is, of course, a gem.

10.  No Line on the Horizon:  A nice effort, but I feel as if there isn’t a lot there.  What are they trying to say, and why do I care about “Sexy Boots?”  Most telling:  I don’t really listen to the album.

11.  Boy:  As a child of the 1990s, the sound is in some ways too dated and raw for me.  I understand that without this, there’d be nothing else…but I’ll just listen to “I Will Follow” and leave it at that.

12. October:  Like Boy, not an album I’ve listened to in a long time.  In some ways, the Christian elements present here actually detract from the normally more mysterious lyrical elements of Bono’s writing.  Like Boy, too far away from my musical preferences and framework to be worth much time.

So, what do you think?


6 comments on “Achtung!: U2 Revisited

  1. Andy Wong says:

    Uh oh. There goes an hour of my time. 😉

    1a. Achtung Baby – Absolutely love it. Still discovering new things about it 20 years later. Favorite Track – The Fly. I have a new appreciation for Ultraviolet after 360. I can and have listened to this album in my car on repeat for weeks at a time. I think I have listened to “The Fly” upwards of 7 or 8 times in a row without getting bored.

    1b. All That You Can’t Leave Behind – I don’t know if it was just the time in my life (which I suspect may have a lot to do with Hynes’ rankings. You always love the albums from your teenage years a little bit more), but this album is more or less the soundtrack to my coming of age. Everything about it is incredible and the Elevation Tour has been, by far, the best I’ve seen. If nothing else, I love this album because it reminded me and the world that U2 still had it in them. Favorite Track – Beautiful Day. I think New York is way underrated. I’ve played this album enough times that the CD is actually falling apart. I don’t know how that happens, but it is.

    3. Joshua Tree – This album has some incredible highlights and nothing that I will consistently skip. Sadly I almost feel like like With or Without You and Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For get overplayed because of how good they are. Favorite Track – Streets. Underrated – Running to Stand Still. Favorite lyric – “I took the poison from the poison stream then I floated out of here.”

    4. Unforgettable Fire – Really on the strength of Pride, MLK, and Bad. I’m actually not a huge fan of the atmospheric sound on this album, but the strength of these three tracks is enough to make up for it.

    5. How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb – Oddly, this album feels more incomplete to me than any other (even though I know Pop is literally incomplete since they scheduled the release and tour before they were done). A couple of really awesome tracks like Vertigo and City of Blinding Lights, and a handful of duds. Maybe I just don’t get this album? Crumbs is very underrated.

    6. Pop – The often maligned bastard child of the discography, not in the least part because of the PopMart tour, but I think there’s a lot on this album worth listening to. There’s a lot of lyrical depth that’s betrayed by the all too shallow pop instrumentation. I can never tell whether the band, in trying to mock pop culture, is mocking itself tongue in cheek or is really that unaware. Favorite Track – Gone. Underrated tracks – the whole second half of the album.

    7. War – 40 and Sunday, Bloody Sunday, New Year’s Day. For some reason, even though I like the rest of this album, it very rarely ends up in my CD player.

    8. Rattle and Hum – Really not much to say. Really like Desire, Angel of Harlem, All I Want Is You. When Love Comes to Town. Couldn’t even tell you what else is on there. Nothing about this album really ever made sense to me – a combination of live tracks, new recordings, and covers. Maybe I’ve just never been in love with America as much as they seemed to be.

    9. No Line on the Horizon – I just don’t get it. I really, really wanted to like this album and there are a couple of real gems like Breathe, but there’s just a little too much going on. It feels very disjointed as an album. It kind of makes me sad to think the band might be trying too hard to be something they’re not or to be what they used to be or something to that effect. Underrated Track – Stand Up Comedy

    10. Boy – I’m not even a huge fan of I Will Follow.

    11. October – Really like Gloria. Couldn’t tell you a single other thing about this album. Oh I guess October is on there too and I’ll listen to that on occasion.

    ??? – Zooropa – I still can’t tell what I think of this album. I really like Zooropa, Numb, Lemon, The First Time, but the sound is so uncharacteristic and some of the tracks just make furrow my brow in confusion. I have no idea what’s going on with Babyface or The Wanderer. Like none at all. Stay (Faraway, So Close) is an awesome track that sounds like U2 to me, but I could argue for as high as #4 or as low as #11 for the album as a whole, depending on the day.

    Non-album tracks – Wanted to give a mention to some of my favorite U2 tracks that don’t appear on proper albums:

    Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me – Unfortunately associated with the stinking pile of Batman Forever, but otherwise a perfect fit for the Achtung Baby! sound and deserving the elite status of that album.

    The Ground Beneath Her Feet – Haunting and moving.

    Electrical Storm – Something about this song just rings true for me. Lyrically, musically, everything. Favorite line – “We need the rain to wash away our bad luck.”

    Lady With the Spinning Head (Whatever mix is on the b-sides of the Best of 1990-2000) – It’s just fun.

    Kind of ‘enh’ on The Saints Are Coming, Window in the Skies, Miss Sarajevo, The Sweetest Thing, Hands That Built America

  2. Andy,

    Thanks for this. I was surprised you hadn’t chimed in on this one. After listening to all of the albums (except War) this past weekend in the order I rated them, I have to definitely move Joshua Tree up and move Rattle and Hum down. And, like you, listening to ATYCLB after a few years really reminded me that I love the album. You are “right on” when it comes to the album being coincidental with an important time in life. It deserves a higher place in my rankings as well. I will disagree with you about Zooropa..and am starting to think that maybe War/October are the worst albums (but again, I need to re-listen to War).

    Love your extras here. Favorite lyrics from “The Ground Beneath Her Feet”: “Go slowly down your darkened hallway.”

    And, I absolutely love “Ultraviolet.” Best lyric: “Your love was a light bulb hanging over my bed.” Something Psalmic about the song.


  3. ApolloAndy says:

    In honor of the new releases, let me catch up my list a little bit:

    Ordinary Love – It took me a while to get this song musically, but I do like it. It’s got a lot of depth that isn’t apparent initially. It’s not a blockbuster, but it is my “Favorite U2 songs” playlist for now.

    Invisible – I absolutely adore this song and think it’s the best thing that’s come out from U2 in about 10 years. I just love the way the guitars and vocals on the chorus sweep in.

  4. Thanks, Andy I may or may not do a track-by-track review of Songs of Innocence tomorrow.

  5. Andy Wong says:

    Just for completeness, I’m slotting Songs of Innocence between ATYCLB and Joshua Tree. I really, really like that album and the I+e tour cemented that. The first three songs are as good as any U2 songs and if I get to include Invisible (it’s a hidden track on the deluxe bonus disc, so….) then 4 of my top 13 U2 songs come from this album. I’m really digging Cedarwood Road and Raised by Wolves, as well as Song for Someone after seeing them on tour and I think Sleep Like a Baby, This is Where You Can Reach Me, and Troubles are all solid. i think this is a fantastic album.

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