U2: the band music geeks love to hate. Achtung Baby is one of the best reasons to legitimately hate the band. They never were original. As at least one other critic has noted, their early output was basically a warmed-over version of Echo and The Bunnymen — though in that U2 did manage to write some great and very accessible post-punk tunes. As the 1980s progressed, and their fortunes continued to rise, their music became increasingly dreamy, romanticized and airy. This was fine enough for The Joshua Tree, but it was also OVER with that album. Rattle and Hum had a few decent songs, but the sheer pretentiousness of it all was unbearable. With the dawn of the 1990s, and the rise of “alternative rock,” U2 was in a bit of a predicament. They weren’t exactly that kind of a band. Well, no problem! They would become that band, or at least pretend to become that kind of band. This proved to be the defining moment for U2. They could always be called upon to chase whatever ridiculous fad took hold of mainstream pop rock. Sure, Achtung Baby has superb production. Off in the background, it might even sound pleasant enough. But on a closer inspection, it reveals itself to be about as phony a record as you could find. In some ways, it was unsurprising that over a decade later the band would take a lot of flack for avoiding taxes in Ireland by moving its music publishing operation to The Netherlands, all the while campaigning for global celebrity “causes” that tend to be undermined back home by their tax sheltering/evasion schemes (to the extent the campaigning had any validity to begin with).
Frontman Bono is of course an easy target for the ire of U2-haters. He fits perfectly one of Dostoevsky’s great put-downs from Crime and Punishment (1866): “He was one of the numerous and varied legion of dullards, of half-animate abortions, conceited, half-educated coxcombs, who attach themselves to the idea most in fashion only to vulgarize it and who caricature every cause they serve, however sincerely.” Achtung Baby is Bono’s “emperor has no clothes” moment. “Even Better Than the Real Thing?” Ha! Fat chance.