On November 18, U2’s 1991 album, “Achtung Baby,” will celebrate its 30th anniversary. It may not be the band’s most well-known album, but it is the album that completely changed the band U2 is. After “Rattle and Hum,” which was accompanied by a concert film and received a lukewarm reception, the band totally shifted gears with “Achtung Baby.” The support tour, the “ZooTV Tour” made major advances for the concert industry; with dozens of television sets making up the backdrop of the stage and a b-stage where the band could play closer to the crowd.
The opening ambient sounds lead right into The Edge’s guitar riff on “Zoo Station.” Bono states that he is “ready for the laughing gas,” and “ready for what’s next,” signaling a radically different direction for the band. Right after is “Even Better Than The Real Thing,” which opens with another funky guitar riff by The Edge, including a lot of wah-wah effects and delay.
“One” is perhaps the most important song U2 has ever written. The lines “We’re one, but we’re not the same/We get to carry each other, carry each other,” feel relevant to our current political divide. It is chill-inducing when U2 plays this song live; lights are usually dimmed, phones are out, and many hands are up in unison. Bono occasionally snippets “Invisible” towards the end of the song, singing the refrain: “No them, there’s only us.”
U2 has frequently thrown biblical allusions into their music, “Until The End Of The World” tells a version of the Jesus and Judas story; “In the garden I was playing the tart/I kissed your lips and broke your heart.” This leads right into “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” one of the band’s most underrated songs. “So Cruel” slows the tempo and momentum of the album down, but brings a classic Bono ballad to the mix.
It all picks back up with “The Fly,” a song that has a guitar riff that truly emulates the sound of a fly buzzing in your ear. Some of Bono’s best songwriting takes place here; with aphorisms like “It’s no secret that a liar won’t believe anyone else,” and “It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success.” The funky “Mysterious Ways” proceeds “The Fly,” with a grooving bassline that allows Adam Clayton to shine for once. Rock radio stations still play this song. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” is a fun song about a hangover. “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” is akin to “With or Without You” in that it is a twisted love song. Take, for example, the lines: “Oh sugar, don’t you cry/Oh child wipe the tears from your eyes/You know I need you to be strong/And the day is as dark as the night is long.” It’s not a happy song, and live versions of the song are some of the most impassioned performances from Bono.
“Acrobat” is another song about hypocrisy and one of the most intense U2 songs: “I must be, an acrobat/To talk like this/And act like that.” It features a blistering solo from The Edge that leads to the crashing crescendo.
The closing song of “Achtung Baby” is “Love is Blindness.” It features a haunting organ, making this one of the eeriest U2 songs. It’s a rather slow song until the solo at the end, which The Edge once again nails. U2 has not closed out an album in such a manner until “The Troubles” on “Songs of Innocence.”
Without “Achtung Baby,” it’s hard to say where U2 would be. The band pushed the limits of their sound; infusing alternative rock and Motown and new guitar effects. The Edge does his best guitar work, and some of Bono’s lyrics are the strongest of his career. It is their masterpiece, and perhaps a “Zoo(m) TV Tour” could happen to celebrate the band.