Do you remember a time, before "One" by U2 existed?
From the moment I heard it, I fell back in love with U2, after seperating myself from them in early 1990, tiring of their po-faced, hat-wearing, world-saving, holier-than-thou ubersincerity.
If you think they are po-faced and preachy now, you should've seen them then. Dull as dishwater, hectoring. Good at what they did, brilliant at what they did, but what they did wasn't brilliant. And U2 always wanted to be the best at what they did. Ambition bites the nails of success. "Achtung Baby" was the album where they took their ambitions and the accessable, stadium rock band they always wanted to be, played with the idea a bit, and reset themselves as something a little less obvious.
You might be expecting a classic rock album. The type that "Nevermind" was going to make obselete. U2 went somewhere else. Somewhere beautiful. Opening with a squall of feedback, a distorted burst of static, a clattering, keen drum attack. "Zoo Station" was where U2 discovered the ability to let go of everything but what they could be. The ability to be silly, stupid, flippant, and also use humour and playfulness to reveal the deadly terror of heartbreak. So "Achtung, Baby" was perhaps the right title : the warning of danger of relationships, children, and beautiful women that leave wreckage in their path. Achtung! Baby.
At the heart of it - the delicate arpeggios and searching rock gestures - it was still the same band, the same heart of it in new and strange clothes, still wanting to be accessable and resonant and popular. U2 have often chased relevance at the cost of being interesting. "The Fly" was a clarion call of intent. This radical invention saw the band set themselves as leaders. The following years the bands that wanted to be the next U2 - Def Leppard, Bon Jovi, and a thousand other wannabe's - all went dirty and got "real" instead of living the dream. Here though U2 tackled, in a loose form a concept : the gap between reality and illusion, between love and lovelessness, the place we all live. Lyrics became suggestive, almost erotic, human, and real. This record that shaped my healthy distrust of the world around me. "The Fly", where a guitar solo is backed by an orchestra of car horns, and Bono sings like a soul diva, was the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree, taking the tools they had, and playing with it.
As an album though, it achieved a greatness few others ever have. Each song sat thematically together with the rest of the work. Musically the songs channeled a progression through the 12 pieces, from the roar of "Zoo Station" to the exhausted howl of the searing "Love Is Blindness". Inspired by the bitter divorce of guitarist The Edge, the lyrics resonated with me then and now : about love and hope and trust and betrayal, both personally and in another respect, politically, the gap between perception and reality. This record made sense of an often senseless world. When one is trying to find their place in the world.
On this enormous deluxe edition, the band offer immense value, with six audio CD's - including the album itself, followup "Zooropa", two discs of b-sides and unreleased versions, and two discs of the numerous remixes and reinterpretations that showed them very clearly playing with the form. There's gold in those hills. Plenty of gold. Though, I admit, also, plenty of lost nuggets during the period covered in this set : two furiously prolific years that saw two albums, eight singles, 32 remixes, 9 b-sides, 3 home videos, 153 live shows and a band creatively in abandon and overdrive. As "Zooropa" proved U2 should think less and do more.
Quite why "Zooropa" is bundled in here baffles me : it's U2's strongest, strangest record and one that is worthy of a standalone release. The extra songs shelved during it's rushed creation would also surely fascinate : you could easily make a deluxe edition for this album in itself.
The extra tracks are the key draw here : Disc Six - "Kindergarten" - shows the album in an embryonic version. Most of the songs are roughly constructed, but the lyrics are all over the place, the arrangements in different places ; "One" is more of a classic folk song, "Trying To Throw Your Arms Around The World" is a busk, the rest are insights into the number of variations a song evolves through before it is born. Nothing from the much bootlegged 1990 tapes is here as such. On Disc Five - "Bsides And Bonus Tracks" - contains six reworked songs from the bootlegs, rerecorded, redubbed, remodelled and polished - but not a note of the original tapes are still here. The B-sides are strong pieces, but compiled in a haphazard fashion with seemingly little attempt to make a listenable body of work out of it. Not helped with "Oh Berlin" having some of the worst lyrics Bono has ever thunked or speechifyied, about the terror of angels. "Down All The Days" - the demo of "Numb" - shows what an enormous difference a different vocal melody can make to a near identical song as the backing tracks are 99% the same thing. A fascinating insight into the creative process.
This deluxe edition is incomplete : "Night And Day", "Can't Help Falling In Love" and "Slow Dancing" are missing (though the first two are included in lesser, remixed forms). Alternate versions of several songs that appear on film soundtracks and singles are absent. The two remix discs contain between them, 6 remixes of "Mysterious Ways" and miss at least four key remixes ("Stay", "Dirty Day", "Daddy's Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car" and the highly-sought after, not to say excellent, Perfecto remix of "Numb"). There's 53 minutes of unused space across the 4 bonus CD's as well, so the reason for these baffling exclusions must be deliberate or an incompetent oversight.
There are four DVD's : a (already released) live show which is therefore, pretty much pointless, an fascinating TV special with several live songs from the 1992 tour, promo videos and a retrospective documentary. The documentary will benefit a standalone release, however as it is, "From The Sky Down" is an indepth look at the U2 creative process on some of the key songs in the album, bolstered by interviews, archive video, and contemporary live / rehearsal footage that shows U2 and where these songs are now. It carries a huge implied knowledge - the bands key alumni such as manager, producers, and engineer are not introduced. It covers the creation of the record in a learned depth, though, somewhat oddly, feels as if it is still missing some key points ; Edge's divorce that inspired the lyrics is not mentioned once, nor are many of the albums songs.
Overall, this is an exhaustive, immense package. For the price the content is certainly value for money : though certainly imperfect and missing many important tracks of musical trivia that would provide a complete, definitive overview of the era. As far as deluxe editions go, this one sticks strictly to the music in a huge binge of about 14 hours of music. Achtung, Bank Accounts.
On paper, there's no way that this package can be worth the asking price: two albums that most people will already own, a live DVD that has been available for years, a documentary that aired free on the BBC. Anyone could be forgiven for being somewhat cynical. So let's take a look in the box.
Oh my God but this packaging is impressive. The art print portfolio and book are securely encased in a great-looking slipcase printed with the original album cover: for those of us who bought the album originally on CD, even having the cover at this scale is a treat. The portfolio comes in a brown card sleeve embossed with the album's "face star car" logo. The sixteen art prints themselves are on heavy, high-quality card and enable you to assemble your own version of the album sleeve if you have sixteen square foot of wall nearby. Very good (and I don't even care about the prints!)
The hardback book is simply gorgeous: six CDs are housed securely in the front cover, four DVDs in the back cover. The book contains copious artwork and a number of essays in addition to lyrics and credits for the box set. Personally I prefer text to photos, but a good balance is struck between the two and the production is very good. Basically, the book on its own could fetch a substantial retail price.
Discs one and two are Achtung Baby and Zooropa. You don't need my opinion on how good these albums are (if you don't rate them at five stars you should seriously consider why you are reading about this set in the first place). I thought that these albums had been remastered, but if so, I can't hear it. They were always great-sounding albums and they still are, but - if they aren't remastered - there will be no reason for most U2 fans ever to take them out of the book.
Disc Three and Disc Four are CDs of remixes. You know what to expect.
Disc Five collects the B Sides and Bonus Tracks. Often discs like this are "all filler no killer", but in this case half of the tracks are from the Achtung Baby sessions and offer intriguing glimpses of a different path that the album could have taken.
Disc Six is a treat: the entire album in a so-called "Kindergarten" version, which seems to be mixed from the original album sessions in Berlin. I suspect that for most fans this is the disc that will be the most interesting: the versions are notably different in places and the sound quality excellent.
The overall running time for the CDs is six hours and while not everything on those six hours will interest all fans, there is enough here to please most listeners, whether you are a U2 obsessive or just a casual fan who likes these studio albums.
The DVD selection in this set is slightly dodgy. The new documentary is an entire DVD with only about an hour and a quarter on it. Because it's a new documentary, you get Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks but, to be honest, it's not as revealing as it thinks and it is a shame that this isn't a longer cut of the documentary than aired on television. It wouldn't have killed them to put some bonus performances on this disc.
The Videos DVD has a running time of a little short of one and a half hours, is in 4:3 ratio and only has a stereo soundtrack. It includes all the variants of each video, and includes all the videos for Zooropa as well as those for Achtung Baby, so it's certainly a disc that a collector would want.
The Zoo TV: Live in Sydney DVD is in 4:3 ratio and the video quality is not great. It's a shame that this wasn't remastered and given a commentary, but bear in mind that you are getting what amounts to nearly two and a half hours of the band live with a soundtrack in Dolby Digital and DTS. If you don't have it already, it's a very decent extra.
The Bonus Material DVD is actually pretty good, bringing together the Zoo TV documentary and other bits & pieces. Again, video quality is not great and the sound is only stereo, but it was definitely worth pulling together almost three hours of (mainly promotional) footage and fans will enjoy this.
This is a very decent package, even given the uber-deluxe pricepoint. If your wallet can bear it, get one before they're gone.
on 20 August 2009
Following the bombast of "The Joshua Tree" and the rootsy cod-Americana of the disappointing "Rattle & Hum" it appeared to many that U2 had creatively ground to a halt, run out of ideas, and would be little more than an embarrassing footnote in the bright shiny new 1990's. That they managed to reinvent themselves so completely with this record is surprising enough, but the fact that's it became one of the most influential and inspired records of the decade, suggests at a comeback of truly Lazarus-like proportions.
This is an inspired record, capturing the zeitgeist of the period perfectly (the breakdown of the USSR/Eastern Europe, the beginnings of globalization, our obsession with television and media) and showcasing a band completely in tune with the times in which they lived. Gone is the overblown, pompous posturing of the 80's, replaced by a sleek, stripped down, streamlined machine, who enjoy poking fun at themselves and deconstructing their own myth. In short it's the sound of a band who've finally learnt to have fun.
Having ditched the formulaic guitar heavy anthems that characterised previous records the mood here is much looser, dancier and electronic, with this sense of freedom and abandon pulsing through songs like "Ever Better Than The Real Thing", "Mysterious Ways" and "Until The End of the World". It also features three of U2's very best ballads in the form of "One", "So Cruel" and the beautiful "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?" which underpin and provide the emotional heartbeat of the record. Throw in "Zoo Station", "The Fly", "UV" and "Love is Blindness" and you've got an album that always delivers and never disappoints.
In time Achtung Baby has proved to be a landmark release, and one which U2 have never bettered. Even 18 years after its release it feels fresh, vibrant and still has something to say, which really is a great achievement.
on 10 December 2000
Be in no doubt; this is the ultimate U2 album. December 31st 1989, Dublin; U2 announce on stage that it's 'the end of something for U2. We just have to go and dream it all up again'. They succeeded. Reappearing on the world stage in 1991, they released Achtung Baby... From the opening of Zoo Station with it's dramatic use of stereo sound, through the dancy Even Better Than The Real Thing (watch the video if you get the chance), it's gritty guitars and punchy vocals, with Larry and Adam providing a powerful rhythm. 'One' is one of their best songs ever, and a popular listen for those in need of solice everywhere.
The album continues, with not a single moment letting it down. The Fly and Mysterious Ways are two further highlights, but really this whole album is a joy and a pleasure. They invented irony in music, and this album shows it off. There's a full spectrum of slow and fast songs, quiet and loud; a wonderfully diverse album.
This album has not dated in 9 years, and possibly never will. It's U2's best album, and one of the best albums ever written. Make sure you listen to it sometime.
And if you want more, try the Zoo TV video - an audio-visual spectacular...