A lot of people can name their favorite album at the top of their head like that. However, I am not that way. When it comes to the albums that mean the most to me, I have had several make their way in my life, be important for a brief period, and then get shelved away to get rediscovered and reloved later on. That is not to say those albums become less important for me. It is just that whatever need I had that required them was ultimately fulfilled. Some of these special albums reappear back in my life more frequently than others. While I do not have a single favorite album, there is one that returns to me more so than the rest.
When I first became actually aware of U2 was when I was on the cusp of turning 13 and the “Beautiful Day” single dropped. That was a really big song and it became one of the best in their catalog. I even bought their album All That You Can’t Leave Behind when I visited Ireland in 2001 (perfect). I was aware of them as an entity and had heard songs of theirs before, but nothing had quite resonated with me until the release of “Beautiful Day” and then I bought a compilation disc of their 90s hits a year later. After that album release, they fell off my radar for a long time. I remember 2004’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb being released, but it didn’t have an impact on me. Neither did 2009’s No Line on the Horizon. I wouldn’t pick U2 back up during casual listening until late 2009.
I was an intern at Country Music Television at the time and I had my own desk, name plaque, and cubicle which was a really big deal for me at the time. Working alone at my desk is when I actively started listening to streaming music services. Pandora was my go to because I liked all the artist and genre customization. At that time, I was big into the Police (and still am) and their station was always my first pick in a listening session. As songs would get rated with a thumb up or a thumb down, the recommendation algorithm would change, and then I would get something slightly different as time went on. Eventually, I started hearing more U2 on my Police Pandora station.
I mostly got cuts for their 1983 live EP Under a Blood Red Sky and that was key. To this day, as a big fan, I will always say that U2 are better experienced in a live setting. Listening to cuts from that album opened doors for me because there was an energy and power that wasn’t present on All That You Can’t Leave Behind. This prompted me to create my own U2 station and that’s when it all started.
On my U2 Pandora station, I, of course, would get the radio hits. But what captivated me were the deeper album cuts from their 80s and early 90s albums. I remember hearing “So Cruel” and could not believe it was from the same album as “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways,” two Achtung Baby cuts that appeared on The Best of 1990-2000 compilation I bought in 2002. I think this is when I started to transition to appreciating albums as a whole as opposed to selections on compilations (not unique to me as that was the music trend in 2000s).
Before the end of 2009, I would buy my own copy of Achtung Baby and listen to it non-stop. It was on my iPod. The disc was always in my car’s CD player. My girlfriend at the time would complain that I was always listening to it. It had such an impact on me and I just couldn’t stop listening to it.
Achtung Baby, I believe, is the band’s crowning achievement. However, it is also a product of my biggest complaint against the band. Quite frankly, U2 do take themselves way too seriously and don’t take criticism well. 1987’s The Joshua Tree was a monumental success, but the subsequent album and film release of Rattle and Hum in 1988 painted that band as pretentious devoid of humor. And the band heard this message loud and clear. Achtung Baby would be the follow-up and even Bono would describe it as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree;” a perfect summation of how reactionary their best album was.
U2’s new image and musical direction for Achtung Baby was miles away from their 80s catalog. Where the 80s brought them criticism as being too self-righteous, too serious, and too unbelievably reluctant celebrities, the 90s would bring humor, irony, and excess. This was a band gambling over a decade of hard work on a new direction that could’ve destroyed their career. And it almost did.
There are a lot of stories about the fighting that occurred while recording Achtung Baby. Some are truer than others and even the band would play coy about it with the release of the 2011 documentary From the Sky Down which celebrate the 20th anniversary of the album’s release. While history may have eliminated some details, what remains true is that the band almost broke up recording this album.
What ultimately saved the band during the recording process was the track “One.” After numerous fights and an ever-increasing tension within the band, the Edge was improvising on the guitar and created what would eventually become the signature track. “One” was a major hit for the band both critically and commercially and has since become one of their touring staples. It is an incredible song about coming together while realizing we are not the same.
In 2011, the band reissued Achtung Baby for a 20th anniversary release. The reissue resulted in five formats; a single disc album, the album with a bonus disc, vinyl, a ten-disc box set, and the ten-disc box set with lots of extra non-music material such as magazines and a pair of sunglasses. I remember being quite annoyed with the reissue. Unlike previous reissues from the band, this album was not remastered because it didn’t need it. However, that wasn’t the problem. Much of the material had already been previously released and what had not been previously released were only available on the super expensive box sets (the biggest one retailing for $600 at the time). While the discs included B-sides, single, and remixes, the one disc I wanted as advertised as Kindergarten – The Alternative Achtung Baby; an album containing early versions of all the songs from Achtung Baby. Referred to as the “baby” versions, this wasn’t Achtung Baby, but more of a Achtung Newborn. The early versions of these songs were raw and unpolished. As an avid fan of what would become the final album, it was always interesting to hear what had and hadn’t changed. In some cases, the songs were nearly final very early on. In others, the baby versions sounded completely different.
“’Baby’ One” is a real treat on the Kindergarten. It is a strictly acoustic affair full of raw emotion. The band sounds so close together as if they are bonding over the song that would become the hit that would save their career. There’s a real passion and love here. While the final version of the song is absolutely perfect, I do find myself enjoying the “baby” version more often.
Kindergarten is a musical example of finding out how the sausage gets made. But while the magic of the end result may be lost for some people, it only elevates it more for me. Achtung Baby is a very important record for me and knowing how it came together doesn’t diminish the love I have for it. It is a powerful record of lust, love, loss, regret, and suffering. It starts with a blast of energy, but ends in melancholy. The range this record has narratively, musically, spiritually, and physically is dynamic and breathtaking. You’re going on a journey when listening to this album. The boys from Dublin had no idea where this album would take them, and neither do you when you hear it for the first time. After 25 years, the album is as important as ever.