Achtung Baby (1991)
Admittedly, this album took a little time to grow on me. It was a shock. Even though there was four years between their last proper album and Achtung Baby, I certainly had no idea that the band had spent that time completely reinventing themselves. Once I got past that though, it quickly became clear that this album was a masterpiece and, despite the break from the past, it was still very much a U2 album. They managed to change their sound without changing the intangibles that made them U2. While you’d think the increasing influence of Europop and perhaps late 70s Bowie would turn the music cold, nothing could be farther from the truth. U2 manage to incorporate the sound without abandoning their emotion. Instead, they make an album that is probably more rather than less personal.
A recent listen to this album convinced me of two things, most of the album isn’t quite as awful as I remembered and “Stay (Faraway So Close)” isn’t quite as good. The end result is that I bumped it up from a 2/10 to a 4/10. It’s still an experiment gone awry that U2 should have had the good sense to leave on the shelf. I remember reading a letter in Rolling Stone, who gave it a great review, that said Bono could fart in the microphone and RS would give it 4 stars (out of 5). 14 years later, I still can’t figure out what anyone likes about it.
While Pop doesn’t come close to the songwriting quality or the emotional level of Achtung Baby, it also isn’t the jumbled incoherent mess that is Zooropa. When I think of Pop as a whole, it’s a very cohesive album, yet the individual songs jump around a good bit in their influences from techno (“Discotheque” and “Mofo”) to rock ballads (“If God Will Send His Angels”) to soul (“The Playboy Mansion”) to jazz (“If You Wear That Velvet Dress”) to psychedelia (“Wake Up Dead Man”). Only “Miami” struggles a bit to find itself, but even it isn’t a complete failure. In many ways, this album foreshadows U2’s straightforward rock approach that comes to fruition on All That You Can’t Leave Behind, but it still feels mostly like a club-oriented album. Pop‘s problem isn’t imperfection or incoherence so much as it’s inability to reach the heights of much of U2’s other work. Perhaps they realized how far off the path they got with Zooropa and this album was a settling down for them. It may have kept them from making a great album, but at least it seems to have grounded them again and positioned them to make more great albums rather than to run amuck in bad experiments.