Give or take a couple of years, the turn of a decade seems to be crucial in the history of U2. As the band make fairly negative noises about their future following a period of extended creative sloth, thoughts turn to the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, when they rediscovered their mojo by stripping away the experimentation and excess that had defined their career throughout the ’90s. Rewind a further ten years and they were at it again, this time in reverse. The story of Achtung Baby is over familiar by now but this re-issue examines it in ever increasing detail, from the album itself up to a six hour über deluxe version. As with many of these releases, the extra helpings are largely unnecessary. The spectre of dance remix culture hangs heavy, with a succession of versions of the album tracks sounding horribly dated and a variety of covers not much cop either.
Concentrate on the real matter in hand, however, and Achtung Baby really did reflect a band who went away and dreamt it all up again. The visual re-imagination was drastic certainly but the music represented a shift of direction rather than a wholesale change of plan. Get beyond the studio tricks and U2 weren’t that different a band to The Joshua Tree, creating anthemic rock songs capable of reaching a lot of people. Listening back to it now, Achtung Baby is a far rawer record than you might have remembered. It’s no coincidence that The Edge’s twisting guitar ushers in the album, as the entire work is the sound of a musician discovering a new world of sound. In contrast, Bono’s vocals are low key and intimate, the singer seemingly content to merge into the band as a whole – despite his new Fly creation.
Song wise, it’s also no surprise that U2 chose to load the front end of their Glastonbury set with material from this era. From ‘Zoo Station’ on, the album finds the band in that rare place where all their different elements came together. Given that it was so of the moment, it has stood the test of time remarkably well, although the key touchstones of the period are easy to spot. Dance clearly plays a large part, although there are also elements of shoegaze and the indie funk of Manchester on ‘Mysterious Ways’. It could have been – even should have been – a disaster but instead saw the band pull themselves back from the brink. As has always been U2’s wont, though, they would pursue the approach further than was wise. Achtung Baby led to Zoo TV to the patchy Zooropa (also included amongst this reissue) to the unloved Pop, in the same way that The Joshua Tree took them to Rattle & Hum. They were able to turn it round again at the start of the next century. Do they have it in them to do it a third time?