There was only one goal in mind: don’t make it sound like U2. After more than a decade of building themselves up as the biggest rock band in the world, the four lads from Ireland were ready to tear it all down. Or, at least two of them were. In order to accomplish this ambitious undertaking, the band would have to fight a civil war within their own ranks for the soul of U2. For Bono and The Edge, complete reinvention was the only way to survive. For Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr, it was akin to mutiny.
Achtung Baby was such a difficult birth that it almost broke the band. No act commanded a bigger stage than U2 by the end of the 1980s, and with the expansive scope of The Joshua Tree catapulting them to superstardom, the members could have easily repeated the same formula and eased into malaise. Instead, they were dealt a blessing in disguise through their first real failure: Rattle and Hum.
Originally conceived to pay tribute to their admiration for American music legends like B.B. King and Bob Dylan, the documentary and accompanying album instead showed U2 what the future held if they continued on the path they were on. They came off as bloated and pompous, with zero self-awareness or modesty. Bono and The Edge were especially taken aback at how their reverential intentions were interpreted, and they began thinking about a new version of U2, one that could be less serious and more irreverent. No slogans, no messages, no causes; just fun.
There are only two “classic U2” tracks on Achtung Baby: ‘One’ and ‘Love is Blindness’. The former is an anthemic stadium-ready sing-along in the same vein as ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’, while the latter is an eerie and haunting closing number not unlike ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ from The Joshua Tree. But for ten other tracks, U2 accomplish perhaps the most thorough dismantling job ever conceived by a major rock band. On concept alone, the band were setting themselves up for career suicide: the saviours of classic rock were going to use hip hop beats, funk guitars, and turn themselves into a distortion-heavy alternative rock band?
Luckily, the band had producers who could help them achieve their vision. Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who had been working with the band since 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, returned to the fold to help the band adapt to changing times. Baggy, underground hip hop, house music, and shoegaze were all on the rise, but could U2 really fit into sounds?
‘Zoo Station’ comes right out of the gate with cacophonous industrial noise, signalling that Achtung Baby was going to be a completely new direction for the band. But there are still recognisable elements: Bono’s belting vocals, The Edge’s signature delay, and the compact drive of Clayton and Mullen are still the core of the songs, but now they’re joined by electronic drums, fuzz, vocal effects, and a palpable slice of irony. Bono found irony to be his primary tool for liberation, littering his lyrics with glib observations, nursery rhymes, and even complete nonsense to contrast the soapboxing of his past. To double down on the concept, the singer adopted a number of guises while recording, some of which would make their way into the band’s multimedia tour extravaganza Zoo TV.
What songs like ‘Until the End of the World’, ‘The Fly’, and ‘Mysterious Ways’ do so well is to show that the U2 formula is surprisingly malleable. Despite the new sounds and attitudes, Achtung Baby is still U2, for better or for worse. The album proved that anthemic stadium rock, underground techno, and punk-influenced alt-rock weren’t as disparate as they might seem, and as long as you brought attention to how silly the commodification of these underground influences was, you could use them in any way you wanted. In that sense, U2 were uniquely primed to enter the ’90s. At a time where selling out was a major concern, U2 were buying in and challenging the rest of the world to blink first.
This kind of radical transformation couldn’t happen in the internet age. Bands like Arcade Fire and The Strokes made their own major leaps into electronica-influenced rock music without anyone making much of a fuss. The major difference is that those leaps came through a gradual transition, while U2 became a new band seemingly overnight. That kind of transformation required the perfect amount of separation: U2 had to go away for long enough to surprise their audience but be around for long enough to have expectations already built up.
In the face of this major cultural shift that is with the 1990s, most established bands would fall flat on their faces. Many did, but U2 didn’t. Bono and The Edge were right: it was adapt or die. Clayton and Mullen were aware enough to jump on board, and together the four of them crafted a subversion so successful that it gave them new life.
When they eventually returned to their earnest stadium rock sound in the 2000s, the age of U2 being on the cutting edge was over. But what remains is a fascinating decade where there were no rules for what U2 could sound like or say. Achtung Baby is radical, but it’s also catchy, memorable, and holds up remarkably well 30 years later. The album itself is great, but its place within the narrative of U2 is its greatest legacy. An album that was purposefully supposed to mean nothing wound up meaning everything to the band. In an appropriately ironic twist, it was when U2 stopped worrying about being the most important band in the world that they solidified their place as the most important band in the world.