In Phil Joanou’s 1988 documentary Rattle and Hum, U2 guitarist the Edge, né David Howell Evans, gives the backstory of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” before he, Bono, and a full Harlem church choir launch into a rousing live take of the song. “[It’s] a gospel song pretty much,” he says. “It doesn’t sound much like a gospel song the way we do it, but if you look at the lyric and the basic music, that’s exactly what it is.”
This is U2 one year removed from the incredible success of The Joshua Tree, freshly anointed as the biggest band in the world. The Rattle and Hum film, which accompanied a double album of the same name, was less a follow-up to The Joshua Tree than a conscious evasion of U2’s proper next step: Designed in the Exile on Main Street mold, it shuffles messily between formulaic Americana, cover songs, and live versions of tracks released just 19 months prior. It sold 14 million copies and didn’t do much to hurt U2’s brand, but further confused whether this band—once so serious and political, at times dangerous—cared most about the message, the art, or the money.
Still, the Edge’s quote hits on something crucial, right in the midst of this vulnerable time for his band. With its first six albums (from Boy to Rattle and Hum), U2 wrote all sorts of songs (power ballads, arena-sized rock, straight punk, even the occasional gospel), but each had been processed through the same wall of reverb, pounding rhythm, and Bono’s messianic echo, to the point where U2 had primarily mastered—and capitalized on—its sound, not so much its soul. In the interest of maturing, the band wrote about bigger and more complex themes—The Joshua Tree‘s lyric sheet runs through war, God, poverty, and heartbreak—borrowed liberally from the catalogue of American blues, and continued to tie its songs to social activism. But their output was still recognizable as boilerplate U2, the work of a band as big as it wanted to be good. True artistic evolution, as the group realized just in time, would require abandoning everything comfortable and predictable about its music.
Such is the formula of 1991’s Achtung Baby, still intact as U2’s most fully realized work. Co-producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois capture this in describing the recording process: Eno wrote in Rolling Stone that “[It] was good if a song took you on a journey or made you think your hi-fi was broken, bad if it reminded you of…U2”; Lanois told a Canadian reporter that “what was different about [the album] was we were determined to mix flesh and machine.” And Bono put it bluntly during a 1989 show in hometown Dublin, telling the crowd that “[w]e have to go away and dream it all up again.”
And so Achtung Baby dissects and recodes U2: the Edge, known for his pulsating and roomy guitar work, is reduced to a series of junky riffs and impressionistic solos; Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton are subverted by glitchy drum-machine effects and Eurotrash bass patterns; and Bono is all but reimagined, his clips and phrases of lyrics delivered foggily and desperately against an erratic churn of sonic manipulations. (He even invented the Fly, a rock-star sendup alter ego, to shake himself of savior themes.) If the band spent the 1980s writing many genres into slick U2 anthems, Achtung Baby was an attempt to write one thing—the love song—over and over and render it across a captivating range of styles, sounds, and textures.
That the band survived its own rebuilding owes to “One,” the first song to emerge from the tense and largely unproductive Berlin sessions at the outset of the album’s recording. Having relocated to Berlin’s Hansa Tonstudio to charm the ghost of David Bowie (who recorded Lowand Heroes there), U2 found the city dark, cold, and difficult—qualities that ironically seeped right into the backbone of Achtung Baby, even though the bulk of the album was cut during subsequent sessions back in familiar Ireland. In Berlin, it was only when the Edge improvised the chords to “One” that U2 found solid ground, and a starting point for the rest of the album.
The song’s studio version retains this makeshift feel, with various instruments pirouetting around its underlying tempo and structure, a chorus that relies on raw emotion (as opposed to soft/loud sonic dynamics) to assert its place in the mix, and a telling four bars where the Edge sidesteps a solo in favor of calmly swaying to the existing beat. “We get to carry each other,” sings Bono—not that we need to or have to but that we get to carry each other. Love and affection framed as everyday privilege, not as righteous service, was the first indication of a realist and human streak bleeding into U2’s music.
Adopting this aberrant spirit from “One,” Achtung Baby thrusts forward into a fascinating spiral of scorched, low-end rock. “Zoo Station,” “Even Better than the Real Thing,” and “The Fly” open with electric guitar wielded as percussive flourish; “Until the End of the World” and “Mysterious Ways” ride tribal grooves through dense, enigmatic narratives (“World” is a romantic ode from the viewpoint of Judas Iscariot, “Mysterious Ways” a singsong meld of religion and sex); “So Cruel” and “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” are subtly atmospheric dance ballads; “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” is angst and distortion, and features the album’s most immediate chorus. The bare, scattershot arrangements grind down to the core of U2’s sound and suit the band’s attempt to explore every form and aspect of love and sex in the claustrophobic span of one album.
Only on “Love Is Blindness” does Bono make any sort of confident proclamation on the nature of these subjects, and it feels earned and believable after 50 minutes of soul-searching and sound collaging—unlike the preachy and grandiose statements he’d been prone to making on previous albums. It’s in these lyrics (“Love is…a dangerous idea that almost makes sense”) and in the fabric of this album where U2 finds that watching the world end might be more captivating than saving it.
The most critical and enduring piece of Achtung Baby‘s legacy—more than its confounding of expectations, more than “One,” more than how it rescued U2 from the specter of grunge rock—is the stage it set for going minimal as a means of reinvention. The concept had existed in other realms of art, but the music industry had long aligned artistry with length, bombast, and color. Think of the kaleidoscopic daring of Sgt. Pepper’s and Pet Sounds, or the epic themes and running times of Songs in the Key of Life, The Wall, and Sign ‘O’ the Times. By comparison, Achtung Baby is a simple song cycle about a simple topic, stripped of distractions and nuance; its significance is conveyed by an immediate and sputtering nerve, a patchwork approach to songwriting and production, and unconventional noises and effects that dance to life just as convincingly as the album’s instruments and voices.
Bleak and sparse, yet still intense and cerebral, Achtung Baby resonates in Kid A, Yeezus, and 22, A Million—other works where limited palettes and thematic restraint yield captivating statements of intent. As on those albums, U2 finds on Achtung Baby the crucial distinction between deconstruction—the very strategy that makes it such a rousing achievement—and self-destruction.