Being the massive group it is today, few remember that in 1991, U2 was at a crossroads. Although they enjoyed huge crossover success with 1987′s The Joshua Tree, they encountered critical and commercial backlash with their subsequent documentary and soundtrack album Rattle and Hum. While the project spawned the U2 classics “Angel of Harlem,” “When Love Comes to Town” with B.B. King, and the underrated songs “All I Want Is You” and “Desire,” it also provoked accusations of pretentiousness. As Rolling Stone stated, some critics dismissed the film and album as “bombastic,” while All Music deemed the movie “disastrous” and the soundtrack “the least-focused record U2 ever made.”
Stung by the criticism, U2 retreated to reinvent their sound and image, finally reemerging in 1991 with Achtung Baby. The disc fused rock with electronic elements, and injected some needed humor into their overly serious image. “Rock & roll is ridiculous,” Bono told Rolling Stone in 1992. “It’s absurd.” While Achtung Baby allowed Bono to parody his martyr-like persona, it also contains quality rock that still resonates.
To celebrate the 20th(!) Anniversary of Achtung Baby, U2 has released several packages that include not only a remastering of the original tracks, but also alternate mixes, outtakes, B-sides, and DVDs containing a documentary on the recording of the album, promotional videos, live performances, and much more. This massive product onslaught allows fans to not only uncover rare material, but also to appreciate how Achtung Baby sounds as if it could have been produced today.
Which package you choose depends on your level of U2 fandom. Casual fans will appreciate The Deluxe Edition, a two-CD set that features the original album and 14 B-sides and bonus tracks. While the remixes of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” and “Mysterious Ways” prove interesting, it’s the rare tracks that are particularly appealing. The trippy “Lady with the Spinning Head” would have fit in perfectly with the original album, while “Blow Your House Down” sounds like early, harder-rocking U2 with just a touch of AC/DC. Their cover of Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” is also featured here, although Bono’s surprisingly restrained vocals fall short of John Fogerty’s snarling original version. Those who want just the remastered Achtung Baby can purchase the album alone.
Hardcore U2 fans will surely salivate at the multi-disc box sets. The Super Deluxe Edition offers six CDs and four DVDs. In addition to Achtung Baby and the B-sides and rarities, the set also includes U2′s followup album Zooropa, remix discs entitled “Uber” and “Unter,” and a particularly fascinating CD entitled “Kindergarten: The Alternative Achtung Baby.” Essentially an early version of the final album, it allows listeners to experience the creation process. Hearing a very simple, acoustic guitar-driven “One,” then comparing it to the majestic, powerful final version illustrates how the band clearly meticulously crafted every track on that album. Bono’s passionate vocals shine through even more on this early take. Those who can’t hear enough remixes of Zooropa’s “Numb” may elect to purchase the Super Deluxe Edition. Ultimate fans may opt for the Uber Deluxe Edition, which includes not only all the CDs and DVDs previously mentioned, but a hardback book, limited edition prints, the double vinyl album plus singles, and even a pair of Bono’s famed sunglasses from the video “The Fly.”
All of the extras are sure to please longtime enthusiasts and completists who must own every U2-related item. However, the truly valuable item here is the original Achtung Baby. Amazingly, it sounds as modern yet timeless today as it did back in 1991. Comparing this material with Rattle and Hum and everything before, it is evident that U2 decided to update and reinvent their sound without sacrificing their original rock roots. “”Even Better Than the Real Thing” may have a stronger, faster beat, but The Edge’s distinctive guitar licks, Larry Mullen, Jr.’s pounding drums, and Bono’s hard yet sensual vocals predominate. “Until the End of the World” rocks with The Edge’s knife-sharp guitar lines and Bono’s soaring voice—in other words, it represents classic U2, but updated for 1990s audiences. The guitar also takes front and center on “Ultra Violet (Light My Way),” which demonstrates why The Edge is considered one of rock’s most distinctive musicians.
A bit grittier than other songs, “The Fly” fuses rock with an electronic sound, with Bono’s voice distorted to match the overall dark tone. But he sings falsetto on the chorus, demonstrating his often under-appreciated range. It’s rock music with a danceable beat, equally at home in a stadium and a nightclub.
The one track that exemplifies U2′s evolving sound is “Mysterious Ways,” a unique blend of rock, dance, and exotic, Mideastern influences. That killer beat, The Edge’s fuzzy guitar, and Bono’s singing only faintly resemble their earlier work. Yet this departure does not jar longtime fans, as it retains the core of U2—loud, swooping rock guitar, a huge voice, and powerful drums. Quite simply, it’s a textbook example of how artists can alter their sound without compromising their essential beliefs. Appropriately, twenty years ago, Bono described Achtung Baby as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.”
Whether you opt for the Super Deluxe Edition or just the remastered album, do not miss this opportunity to revisit one of U2′s greatest works and appreciate its timeless qualities. For more information, visit U2′s official site and Achtung Baby-specific page.