July 18, 2002

Pulling Off The Perfect Con

Review of U2's Achtung Baby, eleven years on.

One of the main reasons U2's Achtung Baby album is so great (and maybe better than the band that made it) is that U2 pulled the biggest con on people who fell for it- that is, they figured no one (or at least none of their fans) had discovered irony til they had, and then (thank you Randy Newman) "the scales just fell from our eyes!" What I mean is, the notion of marrying rock guitars to electronic hip-hop beats wasn't that new or original per se, but when music like that was made by a traditional white arena-rock band like U2, the result was better than the summed parts.

It made everyone think U2, terminally uncool (and rightly so), had finally gotten over themselves and became jaded cynics like the rest of us, whatever that means. Lots of this had to do with the fact that underneath the supposed sonic veneer of co-producer Brian Eno's supposed "electronics" (and to its credit it's never felt coldly electronic to me) are the same old U2 chord progressions. What's different in most cases here are Bono's lyrics. The guy finally learned how to be lyrical- think about it- he went back to, or rather "discovered," the hackneyed relationship breakup theme but added a few extra levels to it. The themes ended up being the internal struggles of U2 at the time (resulting in "One") and the whole Berlin-European disintegration thing, in addition to Bono's epic Biblical allusions, here reaching their apex in "Until The End Of The World," "Ultraviolet," and "The Fly." Our open-hearted hero is an alien to the world of mean-spirited paranoia and changing channels around him, and the only way he knows to deal with this is to just give in to it like a bizarro St. Augustine and enjoy himself.

The main lyrical themes of the album have been described by various band members as "love, betrayal, loss, and faith." A prominent example of this is "Ultraviolet"- superficially a love song but also a yearning give-and-take between God and Satan- like Satan begging for forgiveness, and if not that, being nostalgic for when "your love was a lightbulb hanging over my bed." It's all about loss, and fixation on that loss -remember, the devil is always fixated on what might have been if he'd not been usurped by Jesus in God's love, and that drives everything he does. I think it's basically about how the devil can't get over his own fall, despite outward appearances. According to the narrator, God's love is played out, "like a secret been passed around," and the expensive price of love is always loss. Besides, ultraviolet is a light you can't see, much like how many people feel God's love. You can't see it or touch it, but you can feel it- just don't get too close- like UV light, it burns!

Lines that increasingly identify with other bad guys accentuate this. "Until The End Of The World" is the prime fine example here with its Judas to Jesus dialogue (and bizarre oral sex double entendres). Equally incisive or at least appropriate for the music are the travelogues and bumper stickers in "Zoo Station" ("I'm ready to let go of the steering wheel!") and especially "The Fly" the anti-hero of which "shines like a burning star falling from the sky," similar to the previously mentioned fallen angel. The sleeper, lyrically, is "Mysterious Ways"- a well placed bouncy sex lyric (ostensibly about John the Baptist!) for a song that sounds like that, delivered by that big dork Bono, of all people. Perhaps his only misstep is the vapid question in "Wild Horses" of "Baby... can we still be friends?" Call me a cynic, but with a buildup all the way through the bridge I was expecting him to turn into, uh, Elvis Costello instead of reverting to the treacle and sentiment of "Drowning Man" (off their 1983 War album).

Achtung Baby is sequenced like a vinyl album, with the perfect round number 12 songs, not excessive like the 80-minute monsters out there now, and not too slight like some of the albums from the vinyl era (or the punk-vinyl era). I think what really happened was that the band was fucking desperate, and they stole what sounds/ideas they needed, perhaps knowing that their own creativity (and back catalogue) would fill in the gaps. In doing so, U2 behaved just like a sampling rap group- let's say that they slummed, but mostly innocently, for this record. It's almost like inverse development of the stereotypical rock-star ethic- U2 were socio-politically conscious first (however childlike and sincere) and then applied what they learned from that to their material on a more personal level, in effect creating an album more human and arguably easier to relate to.

Also, this album has as one of its central traits the only really good thing about "postmodernism"- the placing of the individual's needs above any desire to universally emancipate mankind. It may be a coldhearted gesture to many, but it reminds the person doing this of who they are and who they can become. Last but definitely not least, there's great playing on this record too. U2 are almost universally reviled by "real," "professional" musicians for simply getting so much mileage out of a few chords and ideas, but that is, of course, complete crap. Edge's solos on "The Fly" and "Acrobat" sizzle, and the slide touch on "Even Better Than The Real Thing" is excellent. Adam's bass line on "Mysterious Ways" is a simple masterstroke, though I don't think his thick dub-inflections throughout the album were mixed high enough. I guess finally I would say that the reason the album succeeds is that it emphasizes the beat- the rhythm and the sex of rock, better than U2's subsequent 90's work, because this album does it dirtier.

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