You Should Listen To: U2, “Achtung Baby”

When listening to Achtung Baby, I am immediately taken to the first time I traveled to Los Angeles. The day before I flew out there, I had put my signature on about 150 pages as a finishing touch to the purchase of my home. To celebrate the occasion I went to see the concert film U2 3D in IMAX at a furniture store. Furniture stores in my area are pretty weird like that. The film was mesmerizing and all I wanted to do was listen to U2 for the foreseeable future. I wish there was a way to still watch this film, even if U2 isn’t your thing, it really captures the essence of seeing them live and the visuals are stunning.

When I landed in Los Angeles and grabbed my rental car, I was bummed to discover that there wasn’t a place to plug in my iPod. I wasn’t in the mood to buy one of those adapters that go into the cassette player, since those always sucked. So I just bought another copy of Achtung Baby at Best Buy for the car.

I couldn’t have picked a better album for the trip. Living in New England all my life, there was something absurdly magical about driving down the streets of LA on a sunny day in February with a high temperature in the mid-seventies. I had never seen oranges growing on trees, let alone actual palm trees. Pairing this with the opening distorted riff of “Zoo Station” only to have it open up and vividly explode was almost too surreal. Bono’s lyrics encouraging me to be “ready for the shuffle, ready for the deal, ready to let go of the steering wheel” made me feel more than ready for the push.

What I love most about this album is that this felt like U2’s definitive stand as “the biggest band in the world”. Achtung Baby is grandiose and daring while still holding on to the core of what the band had been leading up to this point. Sure, there are moments where this album feels a bit bloated and possibly self-serving, but to crown yourselves as king, there is no room for humility.

Not that there’s a lack of emotion on this album. When stripped down, “One” is still a gutting song, and if caught at the right time, will still sock me in the gut. Same goes with “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” and the beautifully dreary closer “Love Is Blindness”.

Achtung Baby expounded on what the band had created on their epic 1987 album, The Joshua Tree to continue a natural growth while still putting an effort on writing great, great songs. I’ve always argued to anyone who’ll listen that while Bono and guitarist The Edge take in most of the accolades (deservedly so, I suppose), the combo of the always-steady bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. are the heartbeat of the band. Just hearing the bass playing on something like “Even Better Than The Real Thing” makes me melt with joy.

While focusing on large commercial success, Achtung Baby still had songs that dipped in dangerous dark territory (for U2, at least). “The Fly” is a stinging attack with a piercing guitar lead and biting lyrics. Following that track with the massive hit “Mysterious Ways” was no accident. The riff echoing throughout while the percussion puts you in a trance. It’s a sultry four minutes that feels like a descendant of the Rolling Stones.

Achtung Baby helped catapult U2 into super stardom and led them to change the landscape on how fans experienced live music. The experimental Zoo TV tour and later albums, Zooropa and Pop helped define the 90’s. These acts of boldness helped in their partnership with National Geographic to create a live concert film shot in IMAX 3D, the very same movie I saw before my trip.

While I no longer have that home I bought those years ago, and that friend doesn’t live in Los Angeles anymore, I often go back to Achtung Baby and I am back to that day driving down Sunset Boulevard with the world presumably in my hands. The rush and empowerment is still palpable.

Yet another chapter in my life made better with music in it. Just one stop down the line; Zoo Station.

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