Achtung Baby Deluxe Edition

U2 have been putting out records for 31 years. In a time where even making it to a third album is considered a major accomplishment, having a career that spans decades seems unfathomable. But before they settled into their elder statesmen role, U2 was very much a band fighting for their place on the pop charts. After years of respectable but relatively underground popularity, they broke with The Joshua Tree, which launched them into the position of global über-stars that they hold today. So when Rattle and Hum, the film and the follow-up live album, emerged, there was a certain level of treading water. Sure, there was a remix of “Desire,” and the album showed the band “Americanizing” their focus, but it was really just U2 settling into the role they had spent the previous 10 years cultivating. So then the question was, if you’ve become one of the biggest bands on the planet, what do you do next? The answer was Achtung Baby.

Achtung Baby was such a monster of an album, it’s almost hard to imagine what a hard left turn it seemed at the time. Now, 20 years later, with an expanded deluxe edition, it’s time to look back at the record that arguably changed U2 forever. If you look at Achtung Baby in the context of the records that preceded it, the album seems like a Technicolor slap in the face. While previous records like The Unforgettable Fire had a very earnest lyrical and musical approach, Achtung Baby was U2’s version of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, not so much in its loose narrative or genre-jumping, but in the philosophy that it needed to destroy the past in order to move to the future. Thus enters Bono as “The Fly,” the Zoo TV movement and other playful elements. It was with no small coincidence that Achtung Baby’s release coincided with the dawn of a new decade and a cultural shift. While Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno had added cinematic elements for The Joshua Tree, that album still kept the sound of a band in a room. On Achtung Baby, U2 and the producers didn’t shy away from incorporating other sonic ideas and going way beyond. The results nodded to hip-hop and electronica, stretching the band in different directions while remaining U2 at the core.

One of the most striking things, though, when re-examing this album is just how timeless Achtung Baby sounds. Even the songs that should be threadworn at this point still retain their magic. The fact that five of the album’s dozen tracks became singles while the record retained a cohesion and power is nothing less than remarkable. Thankfully, the band didn’t muck with the re-release too much. There’s some sonic tweaking instead of trying to remaster it louder. In that aspect, the new edition is nice, but not essential. The draw is the bonus CD of remixes and B-Sides, but that’s where the collection misses some steps. Out of the 14 tracks included on the bonus disc, they doubled-down on two different versions of “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” when they could have simply relegated that to the Super Deluxe version. And instead of just using the stunning original version of “Night and Day” from Red, Hot & Blue, they chose an unremarkable remix. Meanwhile “Satellite of Love” gets a lovely rendition, but the other covers, “Paint It Black” and “Fortunate Son,” never quite get a fair shake. That said, this package has enough quality material for the beginnings of a boxset (also available), and makes revisiting Achtung Baby more than worthwhile.
Dorian S. Ham