U2 ended Rattle & Hum with Bono declaring it was time for them to "dream it all up again," but Achtung Baby, the best U2 record by any measure, sounds more like a waking nightmare. It opens with a tick-tick-tick before the Edge's guitar — slathered in so much distortion it's nearly unrecognizable — explodes bomb-like at the entrance to "Zoo Station." And with a heave and a clatter, a onetime crystal-clear bleeding heart rock band embrace grime, sarcasm and moral ambiguity.
If The Unforgettable Fire was the heart of U2 and The Joshua Tree was the soul then, make no mistake, Achtung Baby is the crotch. Recorded in Hansa studios in Berlin, the same place David Bowie made Low and Iggy Pop made The Idiot, Achtung Baby exults in sex and sonic ruin. The guitars don't sound like guitars, they sound like table saws. They're inorganic — whirring and screeching in "Even Better than the Real Thing," wobbling like a belly dancer in "Mysterious Ways." Bono's celebrated voice is, on a bulk of the tracks, buried beneath thick, goopy layers of distortion and effects; Larry Mullen sounds like he's playing a paint bucket as often as a drum kit. Adam Clayton's bass is a low, primal throb. The original album cover was printed on greasy, reflective cardboard — a perfect illustration of its calculated tackiness. It is an unholy masterpiece — the sound, as Bono once described it, of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.
Unsurprisingly, it was summarily rejected by many diehard U2 fans as a sellout maneuver — beloved crusaders callously abandoning all of their Big Important Ideas for songs about porking and shopping. The band didn't help matters — they radically committed to this new aesthetic on the ensuing Zoo TV tour, opening shows with no fewer that eight Achtung songs in a row, playing just a handful from the Joshua Tree and turning their stage set into a grand-scale, game-changing and incredibly expensive critique of media saturation, complete with a battery of 20-foot televisions. The role of Bono the Preacher was now being filled by Bono the Smartass, who ordered pizzas for the audience and routinely tried to place phone calls to the President of the United States (a feat he, ironically, wouldn't have to try so hard to accomplish about a decade later).
As time has handily proved, Achtung Baby is the band's best work because it's their most conflicted: It's both a celebration and a rejection of commercial culture; it's the sordid one-night stand and the guilt-wracked morning after. It's wanting to fuck/hating to fuck/wanting to fuck. Where The Joshua Tree blared its ideas from a concert on a rooftop (and made a nightmare of Los Angeles traffic in the process), Achtung Baby smuggles them in hip-hugging leather jeans. It coaxed from Bono some of the wickedest — and sharpest — lyrics of his career. "It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest," he seethes during "The Fly," before announcing, "Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief/ Both would kill their inspiration, and then sing about their grief." He calls his lover "a honey child to a swarm of bees" and in the twilight waltz "Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World" he dryly proclaims, "A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle." The band has always had religious sympathies, but it's saying something that Achtung Baby's sole Bible-derived song, "Until the End of the World," is written from the perspective of Judas Iscariot.
The album's strongest songs are the ones no one talks about: Edge discovering that chop-chop-chop style of playing the guitar was worth it just so he could write the immaculate "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)." "So Cruel," with its moody piano and Bono's pained vocal, plays out like gaslight R&B. And for a closer, they supply the devastating "Love is Blindness." Maybe the darkest song in the U2 catalog, it finds Bono coldly blowing apart any romantic notions associated with, er, romance, instead depicting it as lost, forlorn and suicidal: "Love is clockwork and cold steel/ And fingers too numb to feel/ Squeeze the handle/ Blow out the candle/ Blindness."
What more in the name of love, indeed.