Where were we
The 90s didn’t start off too easily for U2. The Irish rock band had just toured the USA with their best-selling record The Joshua Tree and published Rattle and Hum, a rockumentary documenting U2’s adventures in the States.
After a few years of silence, U2 stated “We won’t see you for a while, we have to go away and dream it all up again”. Then, the band moved to Berlin to finally work on their 7th studio album, and lo and behold, they dreamt it all up again.
Brian Eno, the album’s producer, along with music mogul Daniel Lanois, brought U2 to Hansa Studios. There he had worked on David Bowie’s Heroes and Iggy Pop‘s music in the seventies.
As the band was eager to let go of their western rock roots and to explore a new kind of sound, they found themselves in a fast-changing environment. U2 indeed arrived in Germany on the very last flight into East Berlin before the reunification of the country, in October 1990.
Clash of elements
As the listener approaches Achtung Baby, he feels like the sound reflects the cultural revolutions of the time and place in which it was created. We now know it wasn’t only that: when Bono, the Edge, Larry Mullen Jr,and Adam Clayton started playing together, it suddenly became clear that the band didn’t share a clear vision for the new album.
The feeling of change and the tumultuous events of the last few years found a new meaning in the band’s music. The multitude of inspirations that created Achtung Baby ensures that European dance elements, hip hop beats, and virtuous use of reverb devices can coexist on the album.
The listener might feel as Achtung Baby has more in common with David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy than with any of the band’s previous work. U2 were pulling away from their old ways to explore new devices and sounds. Achtung Baby ended up celebrating the dance influence that was taking Europe by storm and incorporating sounds from the ’60s and ’70s.
Besides, the title itself is a mixture of two components: the German word “achtung”, which means “danger”, symbolizing the European component, and “baby” to represent the American lingo making its way into newly re-born Germany.
In making the record, the creative differences between the members of the band urged them to reflect and write on themes such as unity and separation.
Oneness: an anti-romantic concept
The band members’ personal lives were leading them in different directions: some of them were more drawn to spirituality and religion, others were going through troubles in their relationships that led to a divorce. U2 reported struggling with the feeling they were one band, instead, they felt like four people playing instruments together. Musically, a part of the band wanted to move in a new direction and explore new sounds, while the other part was anchored to their known sound.
These became the inspiration behind Achtung Baby. Their purest expression can be found in the band’s biggest song to date, One. The song went on to become one of the most requested songs at weddings, but actually has a darker, deeper meaning to it. “One is not about oneness, it’s about difference. It’s not the old hippie idea of ‘let’s all live together.’ It is a much more punk rock concept. It’s anti-romantic: ‘we are one but not the same. We get to carry each other.'” the lead singer later explained.
In addition, the melody for One was originally born from Edge’s guitar strolls in “Mysterious Ways”, as Bono recalls in the documentary From The Sky Down, released in celebration of the album’s 20th anniversary.
Ready for what’s next
The record opens with Bono clarifying this is not just another U2 album: “I’m ready for what’s next”. Technically, U2 developed a new style that distanced them from their previous work. Achtung Baby steered in a direction that led to guitars used as rhythm elements and lyrics moving fast in a sensual and evocative way. Even Better Than The Real Thing, Mysterious Ways and The Fly were all chosen as singles out of Achtung Baby. They can be interpreted as a symbol of one of the facets of the record: introspective lyrics on an adventurous musical journey made of powerful riffs.
With its strong melodies and complex lyrics, the album conquered the top of the charts in the nineties, but still manages to sound futuristic today. Achtung Baby’s industrial sounds mixed with pop beats opened up a new path for musicians around the world. In fact, it inspired artists such as Mumford and Sons, The Killers and Keane for decades. Thus, Achtung Baby demonstrates once again that there is not more avant-garde than reinventing yourself and dreaming it up all over again.