It's a miracle that U2 put out an album as good as Achtung Baby as the full-length followup to The Joshua Tree (let's leave aside Rattle and Hum for a moment, as it's not really part of the line of U2's full-on albums). The Joshua Tree represents total commitment to a certain kind of music, the full flowering of a signature sound, coupled to instant-classic songwriting, delivered with embarrassing sincerity. I'm not the only child of the 80's (born in '79 but let's not quibble) for whom U2's album is the ultimate musical evocation of a certain vision of wide open America, never mind that the band's Irish and the song that most explicitly addresses 'America' the concept, 'Bullet the Blue Sky', is just bad, a blight on the album.
Conversely and perversely, Achtung Baby represents its own kind of devotion, the wholehearted embrace of a messy cynicism (Bono's lyrics on the album are even better than on the previous, I think, for their closer-in humanity and sensuality) set to Euro dance rythms and the dark side of U2's early experiments in ambient soundscapes. The album is a continuous sonic journey, like its gospel-Americana predecessor, only underground in darkness, where Joshua was an address to the sun. No hint of Joshua's open-prairie spirituality makes its way into Achtung; indeed the one overtly 'religious'-themed song, 'Until the End of the World', is written from the perspective of Judas Iscariot, and puts a romantic-apocalyptic spin on his relationship with Jesus. And the best track on the album, 'Mysterious Ways', represents the exact flipside of Joshua's 'I want to run/I want to crawl' declarations:
Johnny take a walk with your sister the moon
Let her pale light in to fill up your room
You've been living underground, eating from a can
You've been running away from what you don't understand, love
And what does the song's subject escape into? The moon, the rain, and (a lover's) mysterious ways. The streets have no name in Nighttown as well, but not for the old reasons.
I contrast these two albums to make the following point: listening to these albums you'd think that the band had been making each kind of music all their lives. In this regard Achtung Baby is somewhat the greater achievement, as it represents a wholly successful radical break with the fixtures of U2's older songwriting (you could move a few songs between The Unforgettable Fire and The Joshua Tree and convince people they belonged, but there's no precedent in U2's catalogue for 'Even Better Than the Real Thing' among others). The band might pleasantly (and to commercial success, mind) have followed The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum with straight-up gospel or even more country-fried work. But the best preview of the direction of Achtung Baby is their contribution to the Singles soundtrack, 'All I Want Is You' - a moody, string-washed slow tune that's all seductive atmosphere and unfulfilled longing. I love the song but it's a bit lazy - two chords, a passing chord every once in a while, and a vocal melody consisting of five notes over and over, a brief punctuating trip to the dominant in the chorus, and that hair-raising octave wail during the instrumental outro. (Now go listen to 'One', the centerpiece of Achtung, thanks.) The lyrics are pretty, and blend the declaration-of-strength vibe of Joshua Tree with that album's pervasive melancholy, but they're also just person-sized. The bombast of the guitar-driven climax exists as if in a tiny room, darkened and sad. And the strings play mourning music. It's all a long way from The Joshua Tree, yet takes that album's lessons and achievements to heart.
Two wholly dissimilar well-wrought masterpieces. (And years later, an unexpected third, the 'comeback' album All That You Can't Leave Behind.) It is a measure of U2's integrity and dedication to simple songcraft that they've been able to cover so much musical ground so naturally, with such commitment. There are no jokes on either album, no ironic posturing, no lame filler tracks. ('Bullet' fails honestly, we can grant it that. And is there even a subpar song on Achtung?) My adoration of this work, and of this band, serves - as well as anything else, I should think - as the skeleton of autobiography. Which all criticism is, I sometimes think, critical appreciation no more or less so than the poison pen. And I truly hope that the reading works its way into one of your many selves as well