The Revised ‘Achtung Baby’

Rock critics usually place U2’s Achtung Baby among the greatest albums of all time. Rolling Stone ranked the album as the 62nd greatest ever, and it topped Spin‘s 2010 list of the 125 most influential albums in the last 25 years.

And I hated it.

Critics liked U2 going out on a limb, daring to shed their serious, introspective image in favor of a more modern, materialistic persona. Achtung Baby was supposed to be U2 mocking themselves. I saw it more as U2 selling out, flipping off its legions of fans who took them almost as seriously as they took themselves. (Little did I know that they would continue their slide into hedonism with the next few albums, but that’s my next post.)

Over the past 20 years, I have tried to approach the album from some new perspective, to try and appreciate something about it and hear what everyone else seems to hear. And it’s never worked. The album has quickly gone from unlikeable to boring without any goodness in between.

So screw the new, more modern version of U2. I wanted The Joshua Tree II. But how do I do that, given the feedback, distortion and overprocessed vocals and preening?

Enter the Super Deluxe Version of Achtung Baby, which not only unearthed unreleased tracks but also unveiled an early mix of the album, dubbed the “Kindergarten” version. It was more of a stripped down sound – more direct, less industrial and well, nicer.

Granted, there are some songs that are just unfixable. Despite its popularity, I absolutely despise “Mysterious Ways.” It was U2 at its funkiest, but it was like listening to the Carpenters do heavy metal. It just never worked for me, and it became the whipping boy for my hatred of U2 during the 1990s.

  1. “Alex Descends into Hell for a Bottle of Milk/Korova” – adding this cut, which mimics the beginning of my revised Joshua Tree – an eerie instrumental that has a slightly European feel.
  2. “Zoo Station” (Kindergarten mix) – gone is Bono speaking through a bad PA system. It still sounds industrial, but much more melodic.
  3. “Even Better Than the Real Thing” (K) – Not a big fan of this song, but at least the Kindergarten version is different enough not to remind me of the original.
  4. “One” (Achtung Baby) – same classic version. The Kindergarten version is more acoustic and feels more like a rough demo. This song is way overplayed, but it’s classic U2.
  5. “Until the End of the World” (K) –
  6. “Lady with the Spinning Head” – The B-side to  “One,” you can hear early versions of this song, which eventually morphed into “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)”, on the Axtung Beibi outtakes CD.
  7. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” (K) – This was an average song on the original recording; the Kindergarten version blows me away. It’s an example of how sometimes a song can be perfect early on in the recording process, and messing more with it just makes it worse.
  8. “So Cruel” (AB)
  9. “The Fly” (AB) – The first song I heard from Achtung Baby. It was futuristic, somewhat techno – definitely a sign of things to come  for the rest of the album – but the soaring chorus has always grabbed me.
  10. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” (AB) – The original album’s only saving grace, it’s U2 with the clanging guitars and Bono’s impassioned voice.
  11. “Acrobat” (Original) – I’m not crazy about this song either way, so I’ll stick with the original.
  12. “Love Is Blindness” – Ditto.

I’m finding that I can more than tolerate this version. It’s an easier transition to their later material, with a mix of old and new. Perhaps if U2 had eased me into their new sound, I might not have rebelled so much.

Up next: I try to salvage Zooropa and Pop. It won’t be pretty.

Listen to The Revised ‘Achtung Baby’ on Spotify