I remember November 19, 1991 as if it were yesterday. The day was a cold and wet welcome to U2’s newest album Achtung Baby. It was near the middle of the afternoon when I went into Rose Records with a mouth full of Novocain from the dentist. Jamie, my African American Iowa alumni and fellow U2 drug pusher pal, had decorated her store with U2 on one side and while the other side was plastered with Garth Brooks, the hottest thing in country music at the time.
As I went to the rack to get my disc, I had no idea what I was in for in the coming evening. The crackle of flipping the CD cases made my nerves burn even harder with nervousness. I got to the new release and looked at the album cover, plastered in a patchwork of Technicolor like images, with a hint of skepticism. I had hesitation of spending my hard earned cash on the newest release as I knew this wasn’t our familiar U2 anymore. I grabbed it and headed to the counter to pay.
Jamie and I chatted as I made my purchase. She read me the riot act for showing up late in the afternoon on a new release day for U2 as shoved some leftover U2 schwag into a poster tube and sent me on my merry way into the very overcast late afternoon. I let the comments roll off my back as I left the store with my purchase. The graying sky above me began to collapse around me as Achtung Baby was burning a hole of curiosity in the bag I was toting to Davis Street “L” stop just a few blocks away.
As the “L” train tracks rolled underneath me, I pulled the new-fangled digi-pak CD case, which was still wrapped in cellophane, out of the shopping bag. As I panned all of the images on the cover again, I was searching for clues for what lie beneath. I flipped the CD case over to read the song titles. I was familiar with The Fly but not the others. I mulled the images over and over until my eye caught one of the band dressed in drag. It intrigued me. I was not shocked but curious. Where were U2 going to take me this evening was the real question I wanted answered?
When I entered my studio apartment, I didn’t put any lights on. I let the lack of daylight from the day’s gray sky settle around me. I threw my coat on a chair and shoved the CD into the stereo. I then laid down on my futon with one arm outstretched to the CD player hitting the play button. I wanted the album to roll over me and that is exactly what happened. The open grittiness of Zoo Station took over my every sensation. It was as if I could hear The Joshua Tree being chopped down in the background screaming “OOUCH!” After Zoo Station, I blindly skipped to the only tune I knew, The Fly. I loved it. It was the epitome of the new U2: foreign, scary and hypnotic. That clamoring guitar at the beginning of The Fly was the drug I was looking for in the album. I had heard the Achtung Bebei outtakes a few months earlier and I knew what I was in for or at least I thought so. Bono’s falsetto voice he found in Cole Porter’s Night and Day came to the forefront of The Fly as Edge’s guitar rips the riff apart. As usual Larry was holding down the song down with the steady beat. Adam contained us in his bass line. I was hooked.
After The Fly was over, I started the album from the beginning in order to listen to it in its entirety. By now, my apartment was dark with the faint glow emanating from the CD player. I started Zoo Station again. The love fest was beginning. As I moved through the album, I felt the transformation of U2 was right. Not only was there this new heaviness in U2’s sound spilling out of my speakers but the lyrics were really well crafted. The metaphoric prowess didn’t sink the songs but were polished to the point where they were original. The images created within the narrative were darker. Until The End of The World, a prime example of this great change, has Edge dancing through a chord progression while Larry keeps his standard marching drumbeat and Bono cries out his heart as he visits a very deep seeded religious narrative. It is the track of no hope at all and the darkest of the tracks of the album. However dark the album goes there is a light of optimism. Achtung Baby’s brilliance is in finding balance. The tracks Mysterious Ways and Ultraviolet (Light My Way) put hopefulness back into play. It’s this up and down roller coaster of emotion, which is where the genius of Achtung Baby lies. Anchored by Bono’s tug on your heartstrings lyrics, U2’s new found musical sound scapes are pushed further to the foreground, more than ever before, for a very in your face record.
I revisit Achtung Baby, like War and The Joshua Tree, on occasion in its entirety. I have lived with this album for close to two decades and find comfort in the album. The tracks take me back to a very tough part of life when I moved out on my own and discovered that having trust in friends, family and lovers was tough. When I listen to the record today, it still fits like a comfortable pair of blue jeans and it is that return to the albums last three tracks that gets me every time. I know the album is coming to an end with a hint of hope after Mysterious Ways. Ultraviolet (Light My Way) offers the beginning to the road to redemption, which is found near the launch of the record. Acrobat has this tough punk ending line “Don’t let the bastards get you down” which leads to haunting love song Love Is Blindness. I will say it is the best ending of any album U2 has created. The revisiting of Ultraviolet (Light My Way) on the 360 tour is a testament to this fact that U2 in fact unearthed a gem from a grand album and it has stayed with us as others, much shorter, have passed their shelf life.