Ask Bono a tough question and you might get a tougher answer. U2 are about to release their most expansive reissue project yet, for 1991's Achtung Baby – the album where they traded in earnest uplift for funk, noise, sex, irony and self-doubt. So how does this lavish look back square with the band's old lyric "You glorify the past when the future dries up"?
"I'm not so sure the future hasn't dried up," says Bono, who's been irritating his bandmates lately by publicly questioning U2's relevance – despite the fact that they just finished the highest-grossing tour of all time. "The band are like, 'Will you shut up about being irrelevant?'" he says. But Bono can't help himself – even though U2 have been in and out of the studio with various producers recently, he raises the possibility that the band may have released its final album. "We'd be very pleased to end on No Line on the Horizon," he says, before acknowledging the unlikelihood of that scenario: "I doubt that."
Bono concedes that revisiting the album where U2 punched themselves out of a tight corner – after 1988's Rattle and Hum movie and album helped convince some music fans they were hopelessly solemn and pompous – suggested a way forward. "Ironically, being forced to look back at this period reminds me of how we might re-emerge for the next phase," says Bono. "And that doesn't mean that you have to wear some mad welder's goggles or dress up in women's clothing. Reinvention is much deeper than that."
Moving forward has never been easy for U2, as chronicled in the outtakes, B sides and early versions of Achtung songs unearthed for a new box set – and set forth in moving detail in From the Sky Down, a documentary about Achtung Baby's genesis by It Might Get Loud director Davis Guggenheim. The movie, which opened the Toronto International Film Festival, makes it clear that trying to find a new sound led to what the Edge calls "a potentially career-ending series of difficulties." In tracing the creation of "One," the film also reveals that lyrics such as "We're one, but we're not the same" are as much about the band's fraught brotherhood as anything else. "I thought [Achtung Baby] was a really supercool moment in a not always supercool life," Bono says with a laugh, "and [Guggenheim] goes and makes an uncool film about us!"
Rattle and Hum, and the horn-section-and-B.B.-King-accompanied Lovetown Tour that followed, were U2's rootsiest moment. But for a band whose actual roots were in late-Seventies post-punk, the cowboy hats and denim were starting to chafe. The Edge was listening to My Bloody Valentine, Nine Inch Nails and Einstürzende Neubauten, while also noting the fusion of rock and dance coming out of Manchester, with groups like the Stone Roses. "I always remember the intense embarrassment when I happened to be in a club and a generous-spirited DJ would put on one of our tunes from the War album," the Edge says. "It was so evident we had never been thinking about how it would go down in clubs. So we just wanted to stretch ourselves in the area of rhythm and backbeat and groove."
The band recorded the bulk of the album in Berlin's Hansa Studios, just as Germany was reunifying – and as co-producer Brian Eno wrote, aesthetic guidelines soon emerged: "Buzzwords on this record were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy and industrial." "We found it was more interesting to start from an extreme place," says the Edge.
Hence the buzz-saw guitars that kick off the opening track, "Zoo Station," followed by a blast of Larry Mullen Jr.'s drums distorted almost beyond recognition. "Some of the extreme sounds weren't achieved with sophisticated, outboard equipment, dialed in carefully," says the Edge. Instead, they simply overloaded their vintage recording console. "It was literally, 'What happens if you try to go to 11?'" says the guitarist.
For the band, rediscovering the wildly different lyrics and arrangements on the early "kindergarten" versions of the songs was revelatory – "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World," for instance, sounds like an Irish folk tune. "The first time the paint goes on the canvas is a very, very exciting moment," says Bono. He was intrigued by a line in the early "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" that recasts its story as a "parasitic" love affair ("Your innocence I've experienced"), while the Edge is convinced the more restrained vocal melody on that version is superior to the released track.
One of the more intriguing outtakes, "Down All the Days," has the same backing track as "Numb," from U2's 1993 follow-up, Zooropa, with Bono singing an entirely different song. "It's this quite unhinged electronic backing track with a very traditional melody and lyrics," says the Edge. "It almost worked."
Meanwhile, U2's future plans are not set. "It's quite likely you might hear from us next year, but it's equally possible that you won't," says the Edge. Adds Bono, "We have so many [new] songs, some of our best. But I'm putting some time aside to just go and get lost in the music. I want to take my young boys and my wife and just disappear with my iPod Nano and some books and an acoustic guitar."
This story is from the November 10, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.