As if the 20th anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind and the recent break-up of R.E.M weren’t enough to remind Gen-Xers that their time had long since passed, U2 celebrates the 20th anniversary of their own landmark album Achtung Baby with a collection of releases, some of which are so expensive it makes me wonder how ’80s-era Bono would have reacted to them. I was provided access to the music from the six CDs from the Super Deluxe 10-disc (six CDs + four DVDs) set.
The first disc is the album proper. “Zoo Station” opens with the Edge’s raucous guitar riff and Larry’s electronically distorted drums knocking down the door of expectations, making clear the listener should brace himself because this was not the U2 they knew and loved (and for some knew and hated after “Rattle and Hum”). No, this was a new U2, embracing new sounds and darker ideas. The boys were headed on a different journey with or without you, and what a loss for those who weren’t “ready for what’s next” as they were left “standing at the station, your face pressed up against the glass.”
Achtung Baby had a number of love songs, covering a range of emotions. “Even Better than the Real Thing” is the jubilance of desire and the music soars along. The somber “One” is about people at a breaking point, but as the song closes out the music evokes a hopefulness that things will work out. “Until the End of the World” is Bono’s take on a conversation between Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot but anyone who has had their heart broken by betrayal can identify. The Edge’s guitar creates sweeping waves of intensity on the bridges that evoke the “waves of regret, waves of joy” Bono sings about. The hurt and loss of being left behind is palpable in “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Horses?” with the narrator left with a “heart empty as a vacant lot” wondering “Who’s gonna take the place of me?” Larry and Adam deliver a steady rhythm all during “So Cruel,” a song about a couple that is anything but steady. The narrator holds on even though he knows it’s over and blames her for moving on, not content with her statement that ” in love there are no rules.”
What would have been the second side of the album opens with the effect-heavy “The Fly,” a rockin’ dance number Bono described as “the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.” The narrator was the basis for the outlandish rock-star character Bono would play on the Zoo TV tour. The Edge’s effects-augmented guitar dominates “Mysterious Ways,” a devotional to all women with Adam bringing a bit of funk. A love of life is exuded in “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” as the narrator, coming home from a late night of drinking, wants it all and expects to find his woman waiting. Brian Eno plays the ethereal keyboards here. “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” speaks to something unseen. The narrator needs his lover’s strength yet she appears to be having trouble finding it herself. The Edge has a blistering solo on “Acrobat” about a man aware he’s no longer the same person he used to be in the relationship. He denies it at first, telling his lover, “Don’t believe what you hear/ Don’t believe what you see,” but wants to return there by song’s end. The album closes with “Love is Blindness,” a song originally intended for Nina Simone. It opens with a bit of organ. Adam’s bass is given a throbbing effect and wood blocks are clapped together. Bono sings again of betrayal as he witnesses his lover with someone else. The Edge closes out the song and album with another intense, emotional solo
The audio/video spectacular that was their world Zoo TV tour took them through arenas and stadiums. While in Europe, they furthered their experimentation with Zooropa, the second disc in the set. Some of the songs dealt with the influences technology in our lives, ideas explored during their concerts, and the music was more electronic and synthesizer based. It was intended to be an EP but they couldn’t stop creating songs. The title track deals with an over-commercialized world and the numbness that causes. “Baby Face” is a creepy tale about an obsessive fellow in love with the image of a woman. “Numb” is technology to the extreme as the Edge recites commands in a monotone delivery over looped sounds.
A number of relationships are examined in the remaining songs. “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” is a sad tale about an abused woman, lost in a life she can’t leave. “Daddy’s Gonna Pay For Your Crashed Car” tells of the emptiness of a spoiled girl’s life. The electronic drum effects are strident and samples from MC 900 Ft. Jesus’ “The City Sleeps” are used. “The First Time” is about a young man who runs out on his wealthy family while “Dirty Day” finds a man returning to his family and getting reacquainted with his son. Johnny Cash sings lead on album closer “The Wanderer” about a man searching for God in a nuclear-ravaged world. This song could have been a classic were it not for the terrible musical arrangement that sound like an organ played in a mall. And the alarm at the end doesn’t work either.
Disc 3 is titled Uber Remixes, and all the songs were previously available as B-sides except for “One” (Apollo 440 mix). Songs appearing for the first time in the set are Cole Porter’s “Night And Day” (Steel String Remix), the original appearing on Red, Hot + Blue; Bono is solo on “Can’t Help Falling In Love” (Triple Peaks Remix); and “Lady With The Spinning Head” (Extended Dance Mix), which contains a similar riff to “The Fly.” Different elements are added and extended to make the tunes better suited for the dance floor, but it’s a bit of overkill. Does anyone but the most hardcore completist need six remixes of “Mysterious Ways” that appear here and on Disc 4, Unter Remixes? Speaking of Disc 4, it contains previously available remixes with a single exception of “One” (Apollo 440 Ambient Mix). “Salomé” (Zooromancer Remix) appears for the first time in the set, and the two versions of “Numb,” (Gimme Some More Dignity Mix) (Soul Assassins Mix) are rare tracks from the Propaganda fan club album, Melon.
Disc 5 is B-Sides and Bonus Tracks. Most fans will be curious about the previously unreleased material from the Achtung Baby sessions, but it’s very hard to believe in a set like this there’s only six tracks available, especially considering how good they are. “Blow Your House Down” is an enjoyable song that fits thematically with Achtung Baby though the arrangement sounds more present-day U2, which applies to all these songs but one. “Heaven and Hell” sounds like a different band with its blues vibe and organ fills. The Black Crowes should cover this and have a big hit with it. Bono speaks the verses on “Oh Berlin,” an ode to the city where they worked on the album. “Near The Island” (Instrumental) is a wonderful solo piano piece that may have you longing for an entire album of similar works. Elements from “Numb” can be heard throughout “Down All The Days,” but they don’t mesh with the rest of the song at all, bringing to mind “The Wanderer.” The last new song is a straightforward cover of William Bell and Booker T. Jones’s “Everybody Loves A Winner” with Maria McKee on backing vocals.
Disc 6 is Kindergarten – The Alternative Achtung Baby, featuring earlier versions of the songs with “Baby” preceding each album title. Lyrics and arrangements are different to varying degrees, demonstrating they were right to keep working on the songs, but it’s like watching early cuts of movies. I am not sure of the appeal of this disc either. After the first listen out of curiosity, there’s no reason to revisit.
The four accompanying DVDs present the new documentary about the album’s creation, From The Sky Down; the Zoo TV concert special and associated videos; and all the music for Achtung Baby and Zooropa. There is a hardback book filled with liner notes by people involved with the projects: producer Daniel Lanois, photographer Anton Corbijn, and Brain Eno from 1992. Writers Bill Flanagan, Andrew Mueller, and Martin Scholz also talk about the band, the album and its impact.
Though I have only the music to go off of, and find Achtung Baby still retains its brilliance, I am not sure whom the Super Deluxe Edition is intended for. The casual fan that doesn’t have the album or needs to replace it will likely choose the two-disc set. The major fan probably has a large portion of the music as well as the Zoo TV special. So the price tag for this set is ultimately for the movie, the book, and a few new songs. I wouldn’t be surprised if fans rebelled, finding other ways to get the material they want off the Internet. In fact, while researching the review, I saw most of the new music on YouTube already. There might be fans that find this set worth it, but reasons why are mysterious to me.
Article first published as Music Review: U2 – Achtung Baby (Super Deluxe Edition) on Blogcritics.