The Brilliance Of Achtung Baby
Right Mind Inclined
Anyone who is close to me knows I have an obsession with Irish rock band U2 and could talk about them for hours. If you choose to read this, this is going to be me doing just that.
(This isn’t going to be a traditional album review by the way, but rather describe the album and its music in more abstract ways).
The U2 album Achtung Baby (‘Achtung’ meaning ‘attention’ or ‘watch out’ in German) is an emerald green masterpiece, and it is not only one of my favorite U2 albums, but one of my favorite albums of all time. Filled with irony, satire, desperation, emotion, and pain, each song has complexity and traits that tie it into all of the other songs, while also having its own unique trait or difference that makes it stand out on its own and prevents the album from blending together too much. The music is brilliantly used to make the album feel like you’re following a story, something emphasized by the themes in the lyrics, but songs are also able to stand out without the context of its friends. In addition, the music and lyrics work together and build off of each other to deepen each song as a whole, correlating them incredibly well.
The songs on Achtung Baby make you feel something. They’re tangible, and they feel like velvet and silk, they rattle like tea cups on an unstable moving train. Achtung Baby is a sudden gust of wind as the underground metro screams by without stopping, and you’re left behind in the station completely alone. You’re underground, but you can sense the cool of the night. It’s flashes of bright green light striking something for a moment and disappearing before you can figure out what that something is, letting the darkness envelop you in its absence, just to flash again before your eyes have a chance to completely adjust. It’s reckless and calculating at the same time.
Zoo Station, the opening song to the album, is controlled chaos and curiosity, a restlessness and sense of adventure. There’s a drive to it, and not just on the guitar. Through the music and lyrics, it has a determination and makes clear that this album is going to be about going deeper and exploration. It’s an effective grabber because of this.
The album then leads into Even Better Than The Real Thing, which reinforces this idea of going into a deeper meaning and introduces the satirical edge and irony that can be found throughout the album, both in terms of the lyrics and the sound of it. The music is swoopy and swift, and cuts through the air with a sharp blade. The sound feels dangerous, but no harm is done yet and there’s this feeling of invincibility.
The fourth track (I’ve temporarily skipped the third for a reason), Until The End Of The World, is actually from the perspective of Judas speaking of his betrayal to Jesus (not a song you would typically find on an alternative rock album). This is where the cynical and dark tone of the music, although found in the fore mentioned mysterious third track, really starts to kick in with a punch. The song is like someone’s static covered voice cracking in on a walkie talkie, where it whispers secrets to you. It’s as if you are looking at the song through heavy rain as it covers your head and arms, and white mesh is covering your eyes. You are desperate to see and hear clearly, but you aren’t quite able to.
Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses follows next. You get the sensation that you are moving forward when listening to this one, maybe sliding on your feet down a gradual slope. It’s the sensation of a kite flying about in the sky, restless, trying to break free. It’s perhaps the lightest song on an album of heavy weighted songs (in this specific context I’m not referring to weight in terms of subject matter, but the feeling of them), with the exception of its slightly sinister and dangerous, almost dizzy feeling of the bridge. While (besides the bridge) the song is lightweight and temporarily leaves that angry bite to it behind in Until The End Of The World, while the song feels like air, it’s also not without its subtle, bittersweet undercurrents.
Moving from the lightest weight song, the album fades into its softest, most vulnerable sounding song, So Cruel. While the rest of the album has songs that feel desperate and hungry, desperate to keep moving or escape, to make their emotions known, for something real to hold on to, and hungry for something they don’t know, hungry for truth, this one seems almost defeated, like it’s given up on trying to find something better. It has accepted the sad reality of its situation, and instead of using satire and occasional snark like the other songs do, it’s completely honest, even with the horrible truths. “I’m only hanging on to watch you go down,” it sings early on. The song is broken and tired, tired of relentlessly chasing something they have yet to find and tired of all the lies. It’s tired of having its face pressed up against the glass without being able to reach what’s on the other side.
After the song is over, though, the album jumps straight back into the desperate, determined, ambitious feel it had before, The Fly barrelling through the quiet room where So Cruel was wallowing and purposely knocking over chairs on its way in, yelling “no more moping, it’s time to get moving again!” The Fly is perhaps the most sinister song in terms of sound and definitely the most sinister in lyrics, and if it were a person, they would probably have a dangerous charm to them and leave the impression that you should not trust them, but leave you wanting to trust them all the same. The song is alluring while also remaining cynical, and has the texture of leather. It wants to create chaos.
Mysterious Ways is the brightest song, and is like if you were to mix a drink from the optimism, energy, and effect where there are many streaks of color of the sun, with the passion, silky texture, curiosity, and affinity for the mysterious of the moon. It takes that hunger demonstrated in the other songs and it replaces the desperation with restlessness. It’s still looking towards the unknown future, but rather than grasping at it with the determination of a manic cat trying to break free of someone’s arms, it’s strolling towards it.
The song transitions perfectly into Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World, which has a calmed, but similar feel to it. Although it retains a brightness lingering from Mysterious Ways, there’s definitely a lost sense to it, like it strayed from the direction Mysterious Ways had it going in and now it’s drifting, trying to find its way back home and onto the path it was previously taking.
Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World continues to search for the right direction in Ultra Violet (Light My Way) as well, but whereas Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World was remaining calm, Ultra Violet (Light My Way) now starts to panic, desperate to find a light and path, begging for help. It’s one of the more emotional songs of the album and most direct about its desperation, taking that honesty seen in So Cruel but leaving behind its defeated nature, making it raw. The song feels itself drifting away, feels itself on the cusp of total darkness, and knows if it doesn’t find some sort of footing or direction it will lose control completely. It’s trying to contain its destructive desires and thoughts, but struggling to do so.
Acrobat is Ultra Violet (Light My Way) finally breaking and filling with anger. When consulting the lyrics, it becomes clear this anger is directed at both the narrator’s self and the outside world (though they seem to think there’s still hope for the person they are speaking to). It’s dark, frustrated, tense, and filled with bitter tones. All the lies, the hurt, and the desperation prefacing this song in the previous ones are being poured into this, something driven by the guitar solos and riffs, and exploding together. The album has reached its breaking point, and it’s had enough. Acrobat is the climax of the story.
Love Is Blindness, the twelfth and final song on the non-deluxe version, is the aftermath of this explosion, the dust settling to reveal the building in shambles. The bright, vehement anger has been expressed, but it’s not gone. It’s turned into a quiet rage. The whole album has been desperate to find answers, searching for some understanding, a theme found in the composition and the lyrics, and in Love Is Blindness, the narrator has determined the answer to those questions. The music is black, shadowy, and cold, and the lyrics use language that backs this up, defining love as “cold steel” and “fingers too numb to feel.” The song is once tall, black candles in slender candlesticks, with dying flames that will soon be extinguished by their own melting wax, unable to even illuminate the dark room during a listless night. Love Is Blindness is an amazing ending to an album filled with pain, and though sometimes critiqued for ending it on a somber tone, the album is like a story and follows a narrative, and the song is the way one would probably end it if it were an actual book. It’s not a happy ending, and that’s the point of it. In fact, I could almost see this album as the story of how a villain from another story came to be a villain. And yet, though it certainly has a pessimistic, cynical attitude, there remains one lingering aspect of hope and determination: “love is blindness, I don’t want to see.” The narrator believes that love is blindness and deems it as cold, yet he wants it anyway. It is a perfect subtly, a secret glimpse of belief in a song full of rage and pain.
However, there is one thing I previously left out that, once added, maybe makes Love Is Blindness not as perfect of a conclusion to Achtung Baby as the album could have (but it remains an amazing conclusion nonetheless). That left out thing is the third track, One. While Bono wrote it as a song about breaking up, which probably explains why it wasn’t chosen to conclude the album, most people see it as the exact opposite, including me: it’s about sticking together, despite the disagreements, despite the pain, despite the anger, despite the wrongs, despite the differences. We are brothers and sisters, it states, and we have to carry each other. Not tear each other down, but lift each other up and carry the weight. So, assuming U2 would have made it the twelfth track instead if they had seen it this way too, we’re going to pretend like this one concludes the album instead (but seriously, this is the only critique I have for the whole album).
I am unable to effectively describe One, because all of my descriptions fail to convey just how amazing of a song it really is. It’s powerful and moving to say the least, and arguably more relevant than it was when it first came out in 1991. If I could share one song with the world right now, pick one song for everyone to really listen to and spend time digesting the lyrics, it would, without question, be One. (This is my not so subtle way of begging you to go listen to it).
If you haven’t listened to Achtung Baby, I highly recommend it. If you couldn’t tell, I believe it’s a truly incredible album.
Dream out loud,
(Interesting fact: The Edge, U2’s guitarist, was going through a divorce during the making of this album, which influenced the sound and lyrics of it significantly. He redid the solo to Love Is Blindness over and over and over again, but Bono kept pushing him to go harder. He snapped and poured all of his anger into it, which consequently caused him to snap a guitar string. However, he kept on going and that was the version they kept. The string snapping can be heard at 2:22- it sounds like a chair being scooted. It’s hard to hear without headphones, though.)