Reviewed by John Cheek
As a new Christian, I first started getting into U2 before the release of 'Achtung Baby', having been influenced by some of their previous lyrics in my journey into faith. This new believer began exploring their back-catalogue throughout 1990, a year when they almost literally maintained radio silence. I'd long been impressed that they'd been unafraid to witness to their Christian beliefs in the often lurid, permissive world of rock'n'roll and was awaiting their new album and the chance to catch their next tour, all the while growing to love the previous material of these honest, earnest musicians who appeared to exist in a world of classic, almost sepia black and white - and not just on the level of their album covers. When the new U2 emerged in the autumn of 1991, it wasn't what I expected. It wasn't what anyone expected. The opening single, "The Fly", ended Bryan Adams' 16-week reign at the top of the single charts and although its lyrical concerns about the fall of mankind "from the sheer face of Love, like a fly from a wall" was familiar U2 territory, the sound wasn't. This sleezy, industrial rumble was a long way from the roots Americana of their last two albums. Indeed, the long-player it graced was a full-colour, thrash-metal blast of indie/dance crossover, a contemporary of Madchester or Primal Screen at the time, and clearly not a tribute to Hank Williams, Bob Dylan or anyone like that. The band had been to the legendary Hansa Studios in Berlin, just after the Wall had come down and right in the midst of the unification of Germany, East and West; U2 made the most of this geographical influence to deliver a piece of work which was 'European' and absolutely of the moment. . .and yet today feels timeless. What a bummer this album might have been, though. It certainly nearly heralded the break-up of the four, who, when they finally got their payload of blues airborne, delivered something which has, in time, eclipsed 'The Joshua Tree'. Dark, danceable, funky, frank and fearless, its title - a line from the Mel Brooks comedy, The Producers - is a mask for 12 complex, visceral tracks which together make for one heavy mother. Repeated plays reveal new layers of meaning and nuance, as its creators walk through the valley of the shadow, imagine an encounter between Jesus and Judas after his death and contemplate mysterious ways which come in the shade of ultraviolet. U2 are more than ever in the world, but not of it: wearing the clothes of a TV-evangelist or a showbiz entertainer, they dress up songs about the reality of life as a believer, in all its betrayed, doubting feelings of forsakenness in a society of shallow, consumer idolatry, all the while hinting at influences as diverse as Kraftwerk, Def Leopard, Pixies, Public Enemy, MBV, composer Phillip Glass and possibly early Massive Attack. Bono's voice is at its peak, displaying a falsetto at times, almost gospel in delivery. The tour of the songs of the vision, Zoo TV, changed the face of the rock concert for good and led me and others to wondering at one point if they were still Christians - in fact, it was a critique of the Hollywood, McJobs' tabloid-culture and was influenced by the Christian writer (and prophet) Tom Davies, whose book Merlyn The Magician And The Pacific-Coast Highway had been cited by Bono as the best he'd ever read. Featuring the singer's stage-persona Mr McPhisto, a send-up of the Devil a la C S Lewis and those Screwtape Letters, each part of the live show fitted with the themes of 'Achtung', now re-released in multiple formats with all the outtakes and alternative versions, as well as a typical 'Zoo' performance. As a work of art, they may never better 'Baby'.
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