U2’s ‘Achtung Baby’ at 30: Looking Back at the Pioneering Rock Giants’ Greatest Album and Backstory

Rock Cellar Magazine

With the 30th anniversary of U2’s 1991 album Achtung Baby on Nov. 18, contributor Emma Harrison makes her Rock Cellar debut reflecting on a seminal album from the band, one that would go on to become among the group’s most successful.

With U2’s future in doubt, Achtung Baby, in particular the album’s seminal track, “One,” helped mend a fractured and somewhat beleaguered band fraught with tension — essentially bringing  the pioneering quartet back together.

Released in 1991 as U2’s seventh studio album, Achtung Baby is widely regarded as one of the most successful albums in the long history of the band. The word ‘masterpiece’ is often bandied about a tad too much in music, but this much-revered work’s accolades are indeed justified, as the record ensured that U2 maintained its status as the ‘biggest band in the world.’ 

Achtung Baby represents the group’s musical shift and reinvention. In essence, they took a bold leap sonically, aesthetically and personally. Front man Bono at the time described it as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree” – and he was right. The groundbreaking album was somewhat of a musical voyage, transitioning toward the beginning of a new wave of deepening experimentalism, opening the door to the strangest, most intriguing and, perhaps, the most exciting period of the band’s career.

However, this celebrated work nearly came at a high price. Around the time of its conception, there was a strong likelihood that the four-piece might split up, but it was Achtung Baby — and “One,” specifically — that helped put the pieces back together again. It became one of the most significant records not only of the 1990s, but of U2’s robust catalog.

U2 (Photo: Anton Corbijn)

U2 (Photo: Anton Corbijn)

Recorded in Berlin and Dublin, Achtung Baby was produced by longtime U2 collaborators Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois alongside Steve Lillywhite and was engineered by Mark ‘Flood’ Ellis. Eno provided a similar stance to Bono, commenting that his role was to “come in and erase anything that sounded too much like U2.”

Whilst they were all in agreement that they didn’t want to replicate a similar sound to The Joshua Tree, the four members were not on the same page musically. Bono wanted the sound to encompass elements of the growing Madchester scene, and was also highly influenced by rap music. Bassist Adam Clayton, meanwhile, wanted to incorporate dance music, with drummer Larry Mullen Jr. lobbying for a classic rock sound and the Edge keen to moving toward a fusion of experimental music and electronica.

Without a doubt, Eno and Lanois were the ideal combination to dissipate the ever-growing dissension within the band over the radically departing directions they wished to pursue in order to bring U2 back together again. The irony of it all is that Achtung Baby would fuse the sounds of emerging alternative and hip-hop-derived electronic beats, marrying them to U2’s distinctive sonic blueprint.

With every risk, there is a prospective reward, and for U2 Achtung Baby could have been a musical ‘hot potato’ — but they swerved this, marking the beginning of U2’s most daring decade. They released Zooropa less than two years later, which further cemented U2’s reputation as musical shapeshifters (which continued later with 1997’s Pop).

In 1990, U2 headed over to Berlin after receiving critical and commercial success with their previous three albums, The Unforgettable Fire, The Joshua Tree and 1988’s Rattle and Hum. Three impeccable albums within four years, but behind the scenes, success was somewhat of a thorn in their side. Achtung Baby ponders and explores the profuse complexity of the human experience with some of the most emotive songs drawing inspiration from the Edge’s deteriorating marriage and the band’s simmering internal conflict.

Despite Bono’s promise to “dream it all up again,” the early recording days of Achtung Baby were fraught – with an abundance of discord and disunity. Mullen defined it as a period of “immense strain.” with the Edge described their time in Berlin as “difficult.” It seemed that U2 were divided into two camps – with Bono and the Edge on one side and Mullen and Clayton on the other.

From quarrelling to a somewhat of a quantum leap, U2 went from two distinct camps to a united front and track number three personified this reawakened unity – “One” arose between the band members over the direction of U2’s sound and the quality of their material. 

With an impressive framework in place for “One” fusing Edge’s chord progression (that was derived from two separate sections played back-to-back) with Bono’s reflective lyrics Well, it’s too late tonight /To drag the past out into the light /We’re one, but we’re not the same /We get to carry each other, carry each other, the song is Achtung Baby’s most vulnerable moment that takes the listener into a deep dive into the human experience. It represents the lows (Bono’s somewhat despondent tone at the start of the track) effortlessly transitioning to the highs of that gorgeous falsetto towards the close of the track. It is without a doubt, one of U2’s finest songs, a standout from the album.

Thirty years on, Achtung Baby still sounds as fresh as it did back in 1991 and is considered by fans, peers and those in the music industry as U2’s finest work. Every track is a masterpiece and it is possibly the glue that held U2 together during those onerous times. 

Track-by-track – Achtung Baby, thirty years on

“Zoo Station” Distorted, hallucinogenic and oh so different! “Zoo Station” kicks off Achtung Baby with an intense bang, setting the standard for what was clearly a departure from everything that U2 had ever created in the past. With a dizzying combination of interspersed drums, crunching distorted guitars and a pulsating bass, its lyrics were inspired by a story that Bono heard about a zoo that was damaged by an overnight bombing which led to the animals escaping and wandering around the city’s rubble.

At the heart of the song is the signature guitar riff, a distorted descending glissando that is a real statement of intent.

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” – With its Middle Eastern-inspired bass and spikey guitar licks, the song was originally intended to make a statement about commercialism and how we are all looking for the next ‘shiny new thing.’ Indeed, the video for the track (directed by Kevin Godley) included fleeting shots of advertising slogans and product shots with the video ending with a title card reading ‘WATCH MORE TV.’ The band took this concept one step further on its groundbreaking Zoo TV tour, which is widely regarded as one of the most daring and technically sophisticated tours of its time. Here, the audience were bombarded with a barrage of visuals to parody the way advertising messages were being thrust on the public.

“One” – In all likelihood possibly one of the most-loved U2 songs of all time, “One” tells the story of a romantic relationship falling apart and draws the listener into a heartbreaking analysis of how it all went wrong. Questions are asked: “Did I disappoint you? Did I ask too much?” but seemingly the answers never arrive. Amidst the industrial sound and the sinister guitars, “One” is four minutes and 34 seconds of resignation, vulnerability and reflection.

With its understated opening, “One” gradually builds into an emotional and breathtaking track that is elevated further by a collection of beautiful strings and a heavy bass. If one line represents the turmoil faced by the band it has to be that unforgettable statement “we get to carry each other.”

“Until the End of the World” – Inspired by C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and Brendan Connolly’s The Book of Judas, the song delivers powerful drums paired to a searing guitar riff, all of which representing the relationship between Jesus and Judas, imagining a fictional conversation between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot. It tackles themes such as redemption and forgiveness (“I reached out for the one I tried to destroy.”) Regardless of the religious narrative, “Until the End of the World” is a key contributor to Achtung Baby’s success.

“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” – Ahh! That classic love/hate/push-pull relationship! Chock full of tension, the song is a ride like no other, taking the listener through a sonic journey of a tumultuous relationship. The production effects reflect the stormy relationship and how the object of their desire is both light and dark, sunshine and showers (“You’re an accident waiting to happen, You’re a piece of glass left there on a beach, Who’s gonna ride your wild horses? Who’s gonna drown in your blue sea?”)

“So Cruel” – There’s no surprise that “So Cruel” follows its predecessor. Around the time of creating Achtung Baby, the Edge was experiencing marital issues that led to his subsequent divorce from his childhood sweetheart. The breakup was not just felt by the guitarist, its ripple effect felt among the entire group and their nearest and dearest — resulting in U2 channeling that collective pain into the lyrics. Led by dramatic keys and evocative strings, “So Cruel” captures the heartbreak of a relationship breakdown with panache, and covers a myriad of emotions including obsession, possessiveness and jealousy.

“The Fly” – With its strong guitars and driving bass line, the album’s lead single serves as a commentary on everything from regret to relationships, while showcasing the band’s new direction with a heady combination of gospel, rap and more, reflecting U2’s ability to innovate and deliver a track that encourages the listener to get up and dance.

“Mysterious Ways” – Evocative, spellbinding and emphatic, “Mysterious Ways,” the second single released from Achtung Baby, has become somewhat of a U2 fan favorite. Listeners are drawn in immediately from the start thanks to its effervescent hook, soaring lyrics and surreptitious riff. Die-hard U2 fans or lovers of a pub quiz might recall that the track was originally to be named “Sick Puppy,” but the band only liked the bass line that Adam Clayton had composed for it at the time. It seemed that the working version of “Sick Puppy” left the band at a stalemate, until the song’s breakthrough thanks to the Edge’s experimentation with a lesser-used Korg A3 effects unit. Cue the final incarnation of “Mysterious Ways,” with its gripping guitar hook and funky beats.

Bono himself once called the song “U2 at our funkiest” – and you can’t argue with that!

“Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” – We’ve all been there! The ninth track from Achtung Baby is a  tongue-in-cheek song about stumbling home drunk after a night out on the town. “You’ve been falling off the sidewalk. Your lips move but you can’t talk.” Essentially, this is a track documenting the narrator’s walk of shame and how they are hungover from a wild night out on the town. Here, we are introduced to somewhat of a trip-hop, ethereal vibe, which is a lovely, slightly understated addition to the album.

“Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” – What a tune! One of the best of the entire album, it along with the following two tracks can thematically be classed as a trilogy when it comes to a shared theme: reconciliation. This track examines relationships and how tricky they can be, but if your person is indeed your person – that they will light you up. Bono sings “Feel like trash, you make me feel clean … when I was all messed up, and I had an opera in my head, your love was a light bulb hanging over my head.” It is essentially a declaration of recommitment to being a better person in a relationship. A beautiful track thanks to its easy synthesizers, ethereal vocals and heartfelt lyrics.

“Acrobat” – This track starts low and slow before building in spectacular fashion, with pugnacious drums and a guitar solo that is nothing short of explosive. The hallmarks of Achtung Baby are starting to take shape in this track and make for an extraordinary experience that personifies the many emotions that we experience as humans. Exploring themes of confusion, alienation and hypocrisy. “Don’t believe what you hear /Don’t believe what you see.” There is definitely something slightly snarling and cynical about this track and it’s without doubt one of the most memorable on the album.

“Love is Blindness” – Closing Achtung Baby is “Love is Blindness,” which attempts to convey the mystery of love and how it endures despite being so fragile — a fascinating track that explores that perhaps we must be blind to the other person’s faults in the relationship in order for love to work.

The Edge’s guitar solo emphasizes this notion and is further aided by Bono’s magnificent vocals. Bono originally intended to give the song to Nina Simone, but the band decided to keep it for themselves after it seemed like a better fit for Achtung Baby. The distinctive low end bass throbbing effect on Clayton’s bass coupled with the desolate sounding organ intro and guitar reverb makes for a barnstorming close to a thrilling album.

Emma Harrison is an experienced music writer based in the UK and has interviewed everyone from Sheryl Crow to Moby. She regularly writes features and in-depth articles for Clash Magazine and House of Coco and has also written for The Sunday Telegraph, National Geographic Traveller, the British Travel Journal and more. When she’s not writing about music, you will find her at gigs and festivals all over the UK and beyond. 

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