This was a remarkably successful career move by a band that was already one of the biggest in the world. The most common criticism thrown at them in the days of "The Joshua Tree" was that they were too preachy, pompous and plainly po-faced. The follow-up to that phenomenal-selling album was long but not-that-long-awaited, in the same way as Radiohead's "Kid A". Achtung Baby's first single "The Fly" suggested they might have gone all experimental, like their 90's stadium successors were to do. It turned out that they hadn't really gone more left-field, but just more cool. The album's supporting world tour fit neatly into the 1990's obsession with "multimedia" presentation. But wisely they had kept most of their broad, earnest big-guitar sound, and managed to please almost everybody in the process.
"Even Better than the Real Thing" and "Mysterious Ways" are two of the poppiest rock songs they had done to date, even though they still sounded like U2. Along with lyrics like "a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle", this suggested they really didn't take themselves as seriously. The other huge hit "One" didn't seem all that special on first listen. But curiously, it was successful enough to eventually become one of the usual suspects in "best song of all time" polls.
The mood of the album that's the most successful to me is the scorching energy of slightly fuzzed-up rockers such as "Acrobat" and "The Fly". "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" and "Ultraviolet" are standard U2 pomp but also enjoyable. Only a couple of plain songs, "So Cruel" and "Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World" mar the high quality of the material here. The finale "Love is Blindness" is candle-waving stuff but an assured and sensitive tune.
June 27, 2004