Having spent a good part of the Eighties as one of the most iconic bands in the world, U2 hardly needs to resort to a cheekily absurd title to draw attention to its first album in three years. Then again, subtlety has never been one of the group’s virtues. In its early days and in its basic musical approach — a guitar, a few chords and the truth, to paraphrase one of Bono’s more garish assertions — U2 fell in with other young bands that cropped up in the wake of punk. But U2 immediately distinguished itself with its huge sound and an unabashed idealism rooted in spiritual aspiration. At their best, these Irishmen have proven — just as Springsteen and the Who did — that the same penchant for epic musical and verbal gestures that leads many artists to self-parody can, in more inspired hands, fuel the unforgettable fire that defines great rock & roll.
At their worst … well, the half-live double album Rattle and Hum (1988) — the product of U2’s self-conscious infatuation with American roots music — wasn’t a full-out disaster, but it was misguided and bombastic enough to warrant concern. With Achtung Baby, U2 is once again trying to broaden its musical palette, but this time its ambitions are realized. Working with producers who have lent discipline and nuance to the group’s previous albums — Daniel Lanois oversees the entire album, with Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite assisting on a number of songs — U2 sets out to experiment rather than pay homage. In doing so, the band is able to draw confidently and consistently on its own native strengths.
Most conspicuous among the new elements that U2 incorporates on Achtung are hip-hop-derived electronic beats. The band uses these dance-music staples on about half of the album’s twelve tracks, often layering them into guitar heavy mixes the way that many young English bands like Happy Mondays and Jesus Jones have done in recent years. “Mysterious Ways” is a standout among these songs, sporting an ebullient hook and a guitar solo in which the Edge segues from one of his signature bursts of light into an insidious funk riff.
Elsewhere, as in the fit of distortion and feedback that opens “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” Edge evokes the cacophony and electronic daring of noise bands like Sonic Youth. Indeed Edge’s boldness on Achtung is key to the album’s adventurous spirit. His plangent, minimalist guitar style — among the most distinctive and imitated in modern rock — has always made inspired use of devices like echo and reverb; his shimmering washes of color on “Until the End of the World” and soaring peals on “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” are instantly recognizable. But other tracks find the guitarist crafting harder textures and flashing a new arsenal of effects. On the first cut, “Zoo Station,” he uses his guitar as a rhythm instrument, repeating a dark, buzzing phrase that drives the beat while his more lyrical playing on the chorus enhances the melody. Similarly, “The Fly” features grinding riffs that bounce off Adam Clayton’s thick bass line and echo and embellish Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumming.
Bono’s task, then, is to lend his sensuous tenor and melodramatic romanticism to expressions that match this sonic fervor. He announces on “Zoo Station” that he’s “ready to let go/Of the steering wheel”; what follows are the most fearlessly introspective lyrics he’s written. In the past, U2’s frontman has turned out fiercely pointed social and political diatribes, but his more confessional and romantic songs, however felt, have been evasive. On Achtung, though, Bono deals more directly with his private feelings — not to mention his hormones. “The hunter will sin … for your ivory skin,” he sings on “Wild Horses,” and boasts on “Even Better Than the Real Thing” that “I’m gonna make you sing/Give me half a chance/To ride on the waves that you bring.”
Almost as surprising, and even more affecting, are Bono’s reflections on being an artist. On “Acrobat,” over an arrangement that recalls the apocalyptic frenzy of “Bullet the Blue Sky,” he pleads for inspiration: “What are we going to do now it’s all been said?” On “The Fly” self-doubt gives way to self-indictment: “Every artist is a cannibal,” he sings in a whispered groan, “every poet is a thief.” Squarely acknowledging his own potential for hypocrisy and inadequacy, and addressing basic human weaknesses rather than the failings of society at large, Bono sounds humbler and more vulnerable than in the past. “Desperation is a tender trap,” he sings on “So Cruel.” “It gets you every time.”
That’s not to say that U2 has forsaken its faith or that Bono has abandoned his quest to find what he’s looking for. On the radiant ballad “One,” the band invests an unexceptional message — “We’re one/But we’re not the same/We get to carry each other” — with such urgency that it sounds like a revelation. Few bands can marshal such sublime power, but it’s just one of the many moments on Achtung Baby when we’re reminded why, before these guys were the butt of cynical jokes, they were rock & roll heroes — as they still are.