Much derided, yet this works well enough as furniture music. It’s mostly passable filler of no real consequence, but “Zooropa,” “Numb,” and even “The Wanderer” manage to be better than anything on the offensively obnoxious Achtung Baby. And, for what it’s worth, this album cover is sort of the epitome of a certain early 1990s aesthetic.
Truthfully, there a few decent moments here, and they are all up front: “Helter Skelter”, “Desire”, “Hawkmoon 269”. A few other scattered patches are okay too (“Pride (In the Name of Love)”, “God Part II”), but most of this is quite overblown. It is this pretentious aspect of U2 (plus Bono‘s megalomania) that makes them almost impossible to like.
Perhaps The Unforgettable Fire is best viewed as a transitional album. The Gang of Four influences noticeable on War had faded, and in place Brian Eno‘s production makes the record sound like more of a continuous sonic fabric bound by The Edge‘s delay-laden guitar. Now everything seems designed to support Bono‘s voice, a big reason most love or hate U2. Bono confirms here that he has only one vocal trick — the aching, dramatic cry — and he was going to use it on every song, forever. While this album took the first steps toward establishing a distinctive sound that made the group superstars, it also feels like a mere warm-up for The Joshua Tree. The biggest factor holding this one back is the songwriting, which is mostly less than satisfying. It’s effective on “A Sort of Homecoming” and “Pride”, but the political subject matter gets old. “Elvis Presley and America” is of course regrettable too. This is still a fair U2 album, but War was more interesting and The Joshua Tree was much better at what The Unforgettable Fire actually accomplishes. Pinned between better offerings, it’s easy to see why this is overlooked, even if it’s better than most U2 albums.
I suppose it’s all the rage to trash this, but I would have to be a real dick to do that. It is so popular and well known that it is just too easy to take pot shots at. The thing is, it’s great and most bands would be lucky to ever make an album half this good. Music geeks: get over the fact that this appeals to more people than the cult/underground/indie crap you love. Its wide appeal makes it no less valid. U2’s music really only works when they focus on the winsome romanticism that propels most of this album. When they try to sound like “legendary rockers”, the “newest reinvention of rock”, a copy of any number of post-punk groups, or some other appropriation, which sorry to say is most of the time, they sound positively contrived and annoying, with emphasis on the annoying part (uh, Bono, looking in your direction). I can’t say this is a particular favorite of mine, but it’s a classic nonetheless.
One of U2’s best albums, featuring their best song, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.” U2 basically presented a smoothed-over and more accessible blend of Echo and The Bunnymen and Gang of Four — though personally, I don’t see the need to change a thing from those more interesting other bands.
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.