Review: “Achtung Baby” by U2 (CD, 1991)

Today’s Pop Rescue from a fate uncertain is 1991’s seventh album Achtung Baby by Irish rock band U2. Will this album be the One for you, or will you want it to Fly far away? Read on…

U2 - Achtung Baby (1991) album
U2 – Achtung Baby (1991) album

This 12 track CD opens with what sounds like someone tapping a mug with a pencil as we arrive at first song Zoo Station. Growling electric guitars from The Edge are soon chugging along with a nice thick bass from Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen‘s snare. After about a minute, a highly distorted Bono vocal arrives. Despite the roars of the guitars, the song is pretty mellow with some nice vocal harmonies and meandering layers. This song, by sound and title, and producer (Flood) always makes me think it’s on their #1 hit album Zooropa, but instead if feels like a precursor instead.

The guitars ring out like a siren as Even Better Than The Real Thing starts up, along with a vocal ‘aah’, before some lush Bono vocals arrive. Steve Lillywhite is on production and mixing duties here, and I feel that this helps lend some expert catchiness to it. The song seems to waft along with great ease, with the guitar solo in the middle complimenting this too. This was the album’s fourth single, reaching #12 in the UK during June 1992, although a remix took it to #8 a few weeks later.

That’s followed by One, a song that I feel is synonymous with U2. It’s a gentle strumming guitar that allows Bono to show off his heartfelt torn vocals. Strings drop in although Bono occasionally feels a bit buried alongside those and the percussion. Of course, Flood is back here and joined by legendary producer Brian Eno, who all help to make this song really quite beautiful – more so at the point where Bono’s vocals even hit a more raspy area – it all adds to the emotion of this song. The song was the third single from the album, but very sadly got stuck at #7 in the UK charts rather than take the #1 it deserved. A later version by Mica Paris in 1995, was a similarly beautiful version but it stalled at #29. C’mon UK, wake up to this song!

Next up is Until The End Of The World which gives Bono a lower-register verbose narrative to talk-sing his way through. The bass seems to dominate a bit here, and sounds almost a bit stumbly throughout to this slightly meandering melody. There’s some great guitar moments here, wrapped in effects pedals but there is also an air of a band just jamming.

Some strange effects lead us into Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses, and a gentle tambourine taps out a steady tempo as percussions, guitars, and Bono’s vocals build around it. The track kind of languishes a bit until the chorus comes along and Bono opens up for the higher, bigger, and more impressive vocals. Still, this is the part of the song that is far more memorable than the rest, with Bono singing something-or-other in the verse. A mid-section gives us some nice building guitars and wafting Bono vocals, but he is once again a bit lost in the mix. This was the fifth and final single, and it struck #14 in the UK chart before returning to the stables. The chorus is really the only redeeming feature and the rest of the song lacks the same energy.

So Cruel follows that, opening with a dramatic piano sequence that makes me want to sing the opening lines of Ultravox’s Vienna over it, whilst particularly reminding me of later track Sunchyme by Dario G. Instead of the up-beat dance tempo of Dario G, this takes a swaggering pace, giving Bono an easy time walking through the reflective lyrics. There’s some wonderful violins and violas here, set alongside the beat and guitars.

That’s followed by lead single The Fly which comes running from the get-go with a wonderful tempo. Bono treats us to his whispering-all-sexy vocals throughout (a sound that again is familiar in Zooropa), and it works a treat. The track races along, feeding us catchy riffs and vocals. Whilst it’s #1 UK hit was perhaps partly due to U2’s absence more than the quality of this song, it’s close, and this track certainly has the energy and catchiness for it to be a hit.

Mysterious Ways is next, opening with growling guitars before what sounds like someone playing my saucepans before the bass kicks in. The guitar interjections work really well but the chorus feels a bit lacklustre musically when Bono’s powerful vocals clearly signal that this could be an epic song. This track was the album’s second single but it failed to capture the same success as The Fly before it, stalling at #13.

Then it’s time for the lovely mellow Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World. It’s not so much ‘throw’ as slide in for a hug. The layered guitars work perfectly, and Bono is able to navigate this dreamy song with great ease. The shuffling beats, thick bass allow this track to keep some rhythm but the result is dreamlike, complete with a random ‘a woman needs a man, like a fish needs a bicycle’ line. It’s a nice little song.

Ultraviolet (Light My Way) fades in as a mixture of vocal sounds and synths. Bono drops in to grab your focus, ushering in a drum fill, and enough bouncy guitar pace that could even get Hanson out of their chairs thinking they’re about to Mmmbop. However, this soon steps aside as Bono retains the mic, underscored by a ton more guitar layers at what feels like an increasing pace (it’s not). The song builds steadily before the break, where Bono does some signature high notes before returning to the chorus repeated quite a few times to the end.

A guitar and cymbal lead us into Acrobat, as drums duel with the guitars. Bono is soon on the mic but this almost-protest song feels like it’s waiting just too long for the melody to repeat. The result is a song that just feels like it’s Bono delivering a long sermon. Once again, there’s some almost inaudible vocals from Bono (thankfully the lyrics are in the booklet). Thankfully the song does come good in the end, as a ‘solo’ appears in the final minutes that actually does give the song some sense of melody.

The album closes with Love Is Blindness, which opens like it’s someone’s funeral, before dropping a nice bubbling bass synth and wonderfully light percussion. This is a sad song, and the instruments are mournful alongside Bono’s sombre vocals. The guitars chug in increasingly towards the end as the track heads to the end.

U2’s lead single The Fly (1991).

Verdict

Over all, this album is a good example of U2 songwriting and performance, set alongside the brilliance of Flood, Steve Lillywhite, and Brian Eno.

Highlights are very much Even Better Than The Real Thing, One, and The Fly, but the almost morose Love Is Blindness and Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World are also great songs. Until The End Of The World scrapes in as the lowest point here, mostly because it just sounds like 4 middle-aged men having a weekly jam together before heading off for their ritualistic curry.

There are some wonderful sounds throughout this album and the guitar effects and layered sounds really work well, alongside some great bass lines. Bono’s vocals are shining here too, and he’s able to show off his different vocal styles with great ease, but sadly in this CD version, I found him to be buried occasionally.

Having bought and loved their next studio album Zooropa from 1993, it is clear that there is only a little distance between the two albums – evolving to the latter into a great sound. Still, this is one of U2’s best albums and definitely deserves a listen.

Rated 4 stars - You're missing a treat!
  • POP RESCUE 2022 RATING: 4 / 5
  • 1991 UK ALBUM CHART PEAK: #2, certified 4x Platinum by the BPI.
  • POP RESCUE COST: £1.99 from an Oxfam store.

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