The Joshua Tree is an amazing album, the record many U2 fans and music critics call the band's best. It's tough to argue against that claim. In fact, I think the opening three tracks stack up against any three tracks from any other album in history. As good as The Joshua Tree is, however (and make no mistake: I think it's a wonderful record that belongs in the pantheon of all-time greats), I don't think it's U2's greatest album. Here, I'll outline four reasons why that distinction belongs to Achtung Baby.
It leaves you, baby, if you don't care for it.
Did I disappoint you or leave a bad taste in your mouth?
One of the reasons Achtung Baby is U2's greatest album is that the stakes for the band were so high. The supernova success of The Joshua Tree was tempered by the disappointment and unfulfilled expectations of the Rattle And Hum experiment, both the movie and album. Strangely, just three years removed from a No. 1 album, Grammy Awards and the cover of Time magazine, U2 was on the precipice of irrelevance. Many longtime U2 fans were shocked to see the dour attitude espoused by the band in Rattle And Hum, but forgave them because they knew and had experienced a different U2 in concert and listening at home. But for the non-diehard fan, it must have been quite off-putting to see "Rock's Hottest Ticket" not saying anything particularly funny or entertaining or enlightening while the cameras were rolling. It seemed as though the band was either taking the project much too seriously or not seriously enough. Regardless of how it was perceived, it was unsuccessful. And U2 were not accustomed to failure.
The band had quickly become a victim of their own success, with little idea about how to handle being rock music's next big thing. As a result, U2 were looking to head in a completely different direction musically. But that direction wasn't always clear to everyone involved. Bono & Co. had put a tremendous amount of pressure on themselves to create something extraordinary, and that's precisely one of the reasons I think Achtung Baby is U2's best effort to date: The band knew they HAD to come up with something big or it was the end of the line. Achtung Baby proved that U2 were indeed ready to handle the title of "Biggest Band in the World." It was a daring, ambitious and unique record. And it was a NECESSARY record.
Well, it's too late tonight to drag the past out into the light.
Despite the record's necessity, however, U2 took the hard way in order to get the results they wanted. As Bono said in From The Sky Down, "You have to reject one expression of the band first before you get to the next expression. And in between, you have nothing. You have to risk it all." For a while, they had nothing, and as a result, everything the band had worked for up to this point was at risk of crumbling. U2 certainly were not the first band in rock history to come to a creative crossroads, but few have rebounded in such resounding fashion. The most amazing part of the whole process is that U2 came back by abandoning the vast majority of the formula that brought global success in the first place. They knew they had to take the difficult road, and they did it. No shortcuts, no easy way. And the results reflect the effort.
The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree albums broke new sonic ground. The Edge's regular incorporation of echo, along with creation of vast sonic landscapes, became one of the band's calling cards. It was evident, however, that at the end of 1980s, the glow from those two albums was fading. Whether U2 were ready to accept it or not, that creative direction had run its course. That musical and sonic territory had already been explored. The goal, then, was to create something completely different, music that would sever ties to the past and help push U2's music -- and rock music in general -- into a new decade.
The early 1990s were landmark years for popular music. Alternative rock launched itself out of the underground and into the mainstream with the release of Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten, paving the way for other alternative grunge bands like Soundgarden, Alice in Chains and Stone Temple Pilots. Hip-hop music furthered its mainstream rise, with acts like MC Hammer, Dr. Dre and the Wu-Tang Clan dominating the airwaves and sales charts. Additionally, electronic bands like Depeche Mode and New Order continued their work from the previous decade and helped lay the foundation for acts like Moby, Daft Punk and The Chemical Brothers.
Where does Achtung Baby fit into this picture? Right in the middle. Since U2 were consciously steering away from their past, they looked elsewhere for inspiration. The result was Achtung Baby, an album that blends U2's own musical perspective with bits and pieces from other genres. It's a kind of "alternative-hiptronic U2," combining distinctive U2 elements with new advancements in pop music: distortion; processing; dance, techno and hip-hop beats; industrial sounds; and drum loops. This fusion of styles was important because it proved that you can teach an old dog new tricks. U2 were a band in its prime, yet one searching for a new identity. They found this identity in the fusion of multiple styles into one cohesive album. U2 proved they could adapt and surprise even their harshest critics and make a different kind of music that would also stand the test of time.
We're one, but we're not the same.
One of the qualities that fascinates me most about U2 is that much of the band's success is predicated upon an inherent dichotomy. That is, the band operates (and succeeds) within a contrasting set of circumstances. A few examples of what I mean: The band created a big sound in the post-punk era with admittedly limited talent and even less formal training; the band wanted to become big rock stars, but as the Rattle And Hum footage reveals, they initially despised their hugeness once they achieved it; and the 360 tour was a massive stadium show that somehow created an intimate atmosphere for upwards of 100,000 people.
No album in U2's catalog better reflects this inherent dichotomy than Achtung Baby. Rather than make a(nother) record from the outside looking in, however, the band made music from an insider's perspective. Once U2 came to grips with their celebrity, a new creative direction was forged. With the help of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, U2 used their superstar cachet to their advantage and created an entirely different sound. Bono famously characterized Achtung Baby as "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree." Interestingly, it took a complete abandonment of the sound of their best-selling, award-winning album to discover the path that would lead them to new heights.
After Rattle And Hum, U2 were accused of megalomania and being too full of themselves. Instead of hiding from this criticism, they eventually embraced it and turned it on its head. It was a brilliant move. Playing themselves, the band was faltering. So they assumed the identity of what they most despised… but went even further. The Fly character is not only a personification of the criticism, but a caricature of what many fans and critics said U2 had become.
But The Fly functioned as more than just a caricature. It was a shield, a kind of armor that allowed Bono (and the rest of the band) to relax as they forged ahead with this new artistic direction. U2 guard their privacy very closely, so anything that helps lower those defenses is significant. The Fly -- along with the incorporation of other musical genres -- afforded the band an excuse to let their guard down, open up and experiment. Only by disguising themselves could U2 overcome the creative hurdles they experienced when first trying to record Achtung Baby. Ultimately, the album became a way for the band to deal with the negative aspects of their celebrity: They could simultaneously embrace it and criticize it.
Even with all the new sounds and outlandish characters, Achtung Baby is still, first and foremost, an unmistakably "U2" record. Although the band abandoned much of the aesthetic from the previous records, the core sonic elements remain. Achtung Baby is a perfect blend of essential, classic U2 and groundbreaking, revolutionary U2.
We get to carry each other… ONE.
Last, but certainly not least, there's the music itself. Achtung Baby is U2's greatest album because, more so than any other record in its catalog, it's the band's most solid and most consistent album musically and aesthetically, from start to finish. The record wasn't recorded; it was crafted. It's exceptionally detailed and sonically rich.
It is not a perfect album, though. I don't think "So Cruel" lives up to its lyrical potential: Musically, it's not as explicitly angry or bitter enough for me. And I'm still unsure of what U2 are trying to accomplish with "Tryin' To Throw Your Arms Around The World." That being said, the hiccups are more than balanced by some of the best songs the band has ever produced. I dare anyone NOT to move during the opening riff of "Mysterious Ways." "Until The End Of The World" gives us a rare glimpse into the evolution of guilty feelings by the betrayer. And, of course, there's "One." Arguably U2's finest song, it's a classic study in nuance and subtlety.
What impresses me most about Achtung Baby is that, despite the radical change in musical elements and creative perspective, the core U2 themes are still present. Spirituality is at the heart of U2, and it's at the heart of U2's music. Regardless of how processed the vocals are, there's always an element of deference to a higher power somewhere in the music. Hope is never far from the surface in a U2 song, no matter how distorted the guitars or how processed the vocals. And it doesn't matter how ironic the lyrics or how dark the tone, because love -- brotherly, familial, romantic -- supersedes all.
It's rare for a band to have one of its albums considered a masterpiece. Rarer still for two. U2, it could be argued, has several: The Joshua Tree, All That You Can't Leave Behind, even The Unforgettable Fire. Achtung Baby, however, is the best of the best.
(c) @U2/Endrinal, 2011.
[Ed. note: This is one side of a point-counterpoint from @U2 staffers about Achtung Baby on its 20th anniversary. For the flip side, please see 20 Years of Achtung Baby: Why Achtung Baby Is Not U2's Greatest Album.]