“It’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success.” That’s Bono, halfway between a whisper and a scream, on “The Fly,” the seventh and greatest song from U2’s seventh and greatest album, Achtung Baby, which turns 20 today. I turned 13 in 1991, and this has been a year fraught with musical anniversaries from one of the watershed years of both my life and the rock era. Lest you think I’m merely conflating the two, it’s worth noting that I didn’t catch up with many of that year’s classics—such as Loveless, Laughing Stock, Blue Lines, and The Low End Theory—until years later. But then again there was also Out of Time, Nevermind, and of course, Achtung Baby.
Not that I thought it was a masterpiece right away. When I first picked up the album (on cassette, at a grocery store) shortly after its release, I was only sure of two things: I didn’t like it, and I couldn’t stop listening to it. It’s hard to communicate in today’s era of cross-pollination and porous genre boundaries how radical the album’s sound was back then, at least by the standards of mainstream pop. Hip-hop was ascendant, with the likes of Public Enemy, NWA, KRS-One and many others having made inroads into the mainstream, but it would be another year before Dre and Snoop completely blew the lid off. Bands like Talking Heads and New Order had successfully brought the sonic innovations of funk and disco into the rock world, but a few hits notwithstanding, they remained a bit outré, fine for the hipsters but not quite fully accepted into the rock mainstream, at least in America. U2 on the other hand had broken all the way through with The Joshua Tree (1987), a megahit album that spawned a pair of No. 1 singles. Some of the stodgier classic-rock types still scoffed at the band’s heavy use of digital delay pedals and other electronic gimmickry, but U2 was indisputably the biggest band in the world and had largely cemented a reputation as heirs to the classic-rock legacy. Which they then proceeded to shred to pieces.
The first hints that something was afoot came on New Year’s Eve, 1989, the last night of the ’80s, when a rambling Bono told the crowd in the band’s hometown of Dublin that U2 needed to “go away for awhile” to “dream it all up again.” Many fans took it as a hint that the band was breaking up. As it turned out, they were just getting started. U2 soon decamped to Berlin, a city just emerging from the schism of the Cold War, with the goal of reworking their sound in the same studio used by David Bowie and Brian Eno for the Low/Heroes/Lodger trilogy of the late ’70s. The ensuing sessions with producer Daniel Lanois nearly did break up the band, but the album got done, thanks in no small part to a well-timed visit from Eno (not officially a producer on Achtung Baby, but absolutely essential to bridging the gap between Bono and Edge’s progressivism and the more traditional inclinations of Lanois and drummer Larry Mullen).
Aggressively postmodernist and self-consciously cool, Achtung Baby culls elements from 20 years of hipster music—everything from the fractured pop of Eno’s ’70s albums and the jagged rhythms of the Heads to industrial rock, Manchester-style acid house, and the otherworldly din of the Bomb Squad. What emerges from the stew is too eclectic to be called rock—it’s still basically guitar-bass-drums, but suspiciously danceable and dangerously unmoored. On tracks like the opening “Zoo Station,” Bono’s voice emerges from under heavy distortion and you can hear Lanois and engineer Flood twisting the knobs. The effect is simultaneously mystifying and demystifying, emotionally indirect, yet giving the listener a peek at the men behind the curtain.
But as radical and influential as the album’s sound was, it was the change in the band’s attitude, indicated by the cheeky title, that really threw people. U2’s political and spiritual commitments largely survived the transition, but were now fused to a wicked satirical bent and a radical embrace of uncertainty. On the follow-up album, 1993’s post-apocalyptic Zooropa, very much a companion piece to Achtung Baby, Bono sang, “And I have no compass and I have no map/And I have no reason, no reason to get back,” words that registered as both a mission statement and a battle cry for the moment when modern rock went postmodern, the most thorough reinvention of a world-famous rock band’s image since…well, you know. Bono in particular was utterly transformed, from a painfully earnest liberal do-gooder railing about IRA terrorism or Martin Luther King into a glib, sunglasses-sporting shyster capable of deadpanning a couplet like “Every artist is a cannibal/Every poet is a thief/All kill their inspiration/And sing about their grief” on “The Fly,” a song described by the singer as “a phone call from hell” stuffed with lyrical “untruisms.” Another song, “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” used a Coca-Cola slogan as a jumping off point. Clearly, we were a long way from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and there was no going back. And needless to say, not everyone agreed that this was progress.
The ensuing Zoo TV tour pushed things even further, radically deconstructing the arena rock experience in ways never seen before or since. Giant video screens simulated the sensory bombardment of satellite television with rapid-fire video montages drawing from sources ranging from Nazi propaganda films to contemporary news footage. The clips were intercut with Godardian bits of text-as-graphics, including more anti-truisms like “Contradiction is balance” and “Everything you know is wrong.” Of course 1991 was also the year of the first Gulf War, a mere footnote in the history of modern warfare but, as the first war to be covered extensively by satellite and cable news networks, a watershed in the history of media spectacle. The ensuing displacement of the reality of the conflict by its mediated representation had been anticipated in the writings of Jean Baudrillard. In “The Gulf War Did Not Take Place,” (1995) an essay as widely misunderstood as Zoo TV itself, Baudrillard would write of the “exile of the virtual” supplanting the “catastrophe of the real.” Yes, television reflected the reality of the Gulf War, but that wasn’t the half of it. In an almost literal sense, it became the reality.
Zoo TV functioned on the same principle. Critics complained that the visual bombast overwhelmed the band and the music, as if that weren’t the point; that it was superficial, as if it could have been anything else. Again, Baudrillard: “One cannot help thinking that in the West we still have a hypocritical vision of television and information, to the extent that, despite all the evidence, we hope for their proper use.” Like much of Godard’s work, the spectacle was intended to be overwhelming and resistant to interpretation. In between songs, Bono, dressed up in full Fly regalia—dark shades, black leather jacket and pants—would literally flip channels, offering wry commentary on whatever happened to pop up. There were also the nightly phone calls to then-president George H.W. Bush during the American leg of the tour in 1992, and of course, the night Bono ordered 10,000 pizzas for a crowd in Detroit. The European leg featured another character, MacPhisto, a vain rock star dressed in a red devil suit complete with horns, although the band decided, perhaps wisely, to keep him offstage for the American shows (Americans, satire, etc.).
The devil suit was telling, as Achtung Baby had been noted by some U2-ologists for its relative absence of overtly religious content, atypical for this most Christian of secular rock bands (or is it the other way around?). One major exception is “Until the End of the World,” a casual retelling of the betrayal of Jesus told from the perspective of Judas, looking back regretfully on that fateful Thursday and awaiting final judgment. The song effectively locates the whole album on that ultimate dark night of the soul, evoking The Divine Comedy as much as the Gospel of John. God is present in his absence, a theme the band would deal with more directly on Pop (1997).
Most of the other tracks deal with romantic love, a ubiquitous topic of pop music that U2 had mostly eschewed during the ’80s. The epic “One” and slinky “So Cruel” detail troubled relationships, a theme that seemingly crests with “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” in which the wandering male protagonist apparently conquers temptation and returns home. The song ends on the uplifting, redemptive note of previous U2 closers like “40” and “MLK.” Except that there are still three more tracks to go.
Those last three songs hit a different register entirely, plumbing a darkness that U2 had only hinted at on previous albums. “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” is another celebration of monogamy, but one tinged with desperation (“I remember when we could sleep on stones/But now we lie together in whispers and moans/When I was all messed up and I heard opera in my head/Your love was a light bulb hanging over my bed”). The mood darkens further with “Acrobat,” a portrait of full-on existential crisis, in which Bono’s anxiety about his shifting public persona bubbles to the surface (“And I must be an acrobat/To talk like this and act like that”). Belying his history of religious and political identifications, he sings, “And I’d join the movement/If there was one I could believe in/I’d break bread and wine/If there was a church I could receive in.” But not tonight. It’s still Maundy Thursday, the Last Supper is history, and there’s no redemption in sight, not for three more days—or three more albums anyway.
Instead of a benediction, the band leaves us with “Love Is Blindness” (cf. “God is love”), perhaps the bleakest song in the U2 catalog, even if, 20 years later, I’m still not sure what it’s about. Over a ghostly midtempo shuffle, Bono’s lyrics evoke suicide, terrorism, prostitution, divorce, I don't know what. It climaxes with perhaps the most wrenching solo of Edge’s career. Squeeze the handle, blow out the candle, love is blindness. And it was night.