U2's Achtung Baby: A Tale of Marriage on the Rocks
Released in 1991, Achtung Baby is one of U2's most successful albums. It is also my favorite. Achtung Baby marks the band's transformation from preaching from the mountaintop to crawling into your living room.
Achtung Baby was U2's response to the critics calling them too "preachy" and the band coming to the realization that they weren't making the kind of music that sounded as good on the radio as it did in the stadium.
Work on the album began in Berlin during the time of the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany. Early sessions nearly led to the destruction of the band. Things were not coming together and they very nearly walked away from it all. Until The Edge played those famous opening chords of "One" and everything fell into place.
U2 finally produced an album that sounded good on the radio. An album with songs you can dance to. Songs that became hit singles and are just as relevant today as they were 20 years ago. Songs that make you feel good, make you feel blue. Songs that preach without preaching, and speak of the most intimate and the most grand - life, love, religion, relationship. All under the guise of pop music and the glitz and glamour of the Zoo TV Tour.
What Does Achtung Baby Have to do With Marriage?
I love a good hit song as much as the next person. There is no question that Achtung Baby produced some amazing singles: One, Even Better Than the Real Thing, Mysterious Ways.
However, what I love most about Achtung Baby is the album as a whole. For some of you, this is an alien concept. In the age of YouTube and digital downloads, it is too easy to enjoy the single outside of the context of the album.
You don't know what you are missing!
When a band takes the time to make a real album, not just throw together some singles, the result can be magical. At least that is how I feel about Achtung Baby. One song draws you into the next. The roller coaster like progression takes you on a journey of highs and lows.
Achtung Baby also tells a story. This is the story of a marriage on the rocks. At least that is one way to see it. I cannot take credit for this interpretation. I read it in a book, U2 At the End of the World by Bill Flanigan, and it has stuck with me ever since.
Did Bono intend to tell of a failing marriage? I don't know. I do know that The Edge was going through a divorce at the time of the album's conception. It is not inconceivable that this colored Bono's songwriting. Would Bono even agree with this interpretation? I don't know. I do know that most good artists are aware that their work is open to interpretation and I think he would respect the viewpoint.
So, what is all this business about marriage that I am rambling on about? What on earth do I mean? The best I can do is to show you, track by track.
Please allow me to take you on a journey that begins with being blinded by love and ends with just plain blindness.
Zoo Station (Live 2009)
Track 1 - Zoo Station
The first track of Achtung Baby speaks volumes. It is about breaking out, moving forward. It is about excitement and ambition. The music agrees. Zoo Station begins the album with an assault on the senses, harder and more metallic than anything they have done before.
Zoo Staion is about taking the leap and being "ready for what's next." No hesitiation. No trepidation. Constant repetition of the words "I'm ready".
"I'm ready for the shuffle / Ready for the deal / Ready to let go of the steering wheel"...If that doesn't sound like a man taking the plunge than I don't know what does.
Good luck to him!
Track 2: Even Better Than the Real Thing
Let the honeymoon period begin. The title says it all - "even better than the real thing". I am going to go one further and say that it is also too good to be true. He doesn't care, because he can't see it.
He is head over heals in blind crazy love. "Well my heart is where it's always been / My head is somewhere in between / Give me one more chance / Let me be your lover tonight"
He will say and do anything to please her, to continue this heaven on earth.
The smoothness of the vocals, the uplifting music, has you believing it. She is "the real thing, even better than the real thing".
They are invincible: "We're free to fly the crimson sky / The sun won't melt our wings tonight"
Guess this guy's not familiar with what happened to Icarus.
Track 3: One
Honeymoon is over! This is not puppy love. This is not a frilly romance novel. This is hurt and anguish. This is forgiveness and acceptance.
To me, this track is one of the most sobering and real examinations of what relationship is. "One love / We get to share it / Leaves you baby if you / Don't care for it"
They have fought, they have made up, they have done it again and again. "Hurt each other
Then we do it again"
There is trouble in paradise, but they are not giving up, Not yet. "One life / But we're not the same / We get to / Carry each other".
Track 4: Until the End of the World
While Until the End of the World was written as a conversation between Jesus and Judas, it can be easily seen as a man to a woman. The vocals are low, the music is an odd combination of dance beat and haunting melody.
She has lost sight of the fun in life. "Everybody having a good time / Except you / You were talking about the end of the world"
She is overreacting to the bad things, or is she? "In the garden I was playing the tart / I kissed your lips and broke your heart / You...you were acting like it was / The end of the world"
All is not lost. "I reached out for the one I tried to destroy / You...you said you'd wait 'til the end of the world"
The happy (unhappy?) couple is hanging in there. For better or worse, right?
Track 5: Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
There are no dance beats here. Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses is haunting even in it's chorus.
This girl is a train wreck "You're an accident waiting to happen / You're a piece of glass left in a beach" and it is killing him. How did she get like this? Is it her? Is it something he did? That remains a mystery.
You can hear the anguish in his voice. She is ready to cut and run, but he won't let her. Not yet. He can't let her go. She still belongs to him. He still needs her. "Oh, the deeper I spin / Oh, the hunter will sin for your ivory skin"
She can't leave him. He is the only one that will ever understand her. The only one that can be there for her. "Who's gonna ride your wild horses? / Who's gonna drown in your blue sea? / Who's gonna taste your salt water kisses? / Who's gonna take the place of me?"
Is he the only one? Is it true? Maybe. Or maybe he is unraveling too.
Track 6: So Cruel
She has done something. Lied. Has she cheated? I get the sense that she has. This "cruel" woman is doing a number on him.
He does everything to make her happy but he gets nowhere. "I gave you everything you ever wanted / It wasn't what you wanted / The men who love you, you hate the most"
The track has the haunting quality like the previous ones. There is the sense of pain mixed with longing. It seems like he accepts it. Like an addict takes the sting of the needle. Love, pain, and lust are all mixed up. "You don't know if it's fear or desire / Danger the drug that takes you higher / Head in heaven, fingers in the mire"
But he still won't give up. He needs her "like a drug". "Desperation is a tender trap / It gets you every time / You put your lips to her lips / To stop the lie"
Is she the only liar? What about him? Is he guilty of the same?
Where does this leave them? "Between the horses of love and lust / We are trampled underfoot". Anyone who has been in that position knows it is not a comfortable one. So now what?
Track 7: The Fly
With The Fly, we are back to the metallic sounds and uplifting feel of the earlier tracks.
Something has rekindled the fire. The sorrow is gone. Things aren't perfect, but he is too in love with her to care. We are back to the sort of blind love that was there in the beginning.
Or is this not about his wife? Is there another woman? Is it her that he is in lust with? "It's no secret that the stars are falling from the sky/ It's no secret that our world is in darkness tonight / They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by a moon / You know I don't see you when she walks in the room"
"A man will beg / A man will crawl / On the sheer face of love / Like a fly on a wall"
Is everything all rainbows and flowers? Doubtful. But he is back on his high, for now at least. But who is he high on?
Track 8: Mysterious Ways
"She moves in mysterious ways"
This is a dance song. No question. The vocals, the rhythm, the beat are smooth and sensual. They make you want to move with her.
Mysterious, wonderful, beautiful, heavenly. This is she. And he is taken with her. She is just what he needs. "You've been running away / From what you don't understand... Love. / She's slippy / You're sliding down / She'll be there when you hit the ground"
Who is she? Is this his wife? Is he seeing her once more as he saw her at the start? Or is this his mistress? Is he overtaken with lust or the newness of a forbidden love of a woman that confuses him yet understands him.
Whichever it is, he is captivated. "If you want to kiss the sky / Better learn how to kneel"
And kneel he will.
Track 9: Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World
(A song about stumbling home drunk, but it also works nicely as a love song; the beauty of interpretation.)
She is in crisis again.
"You've been falling off the sidewalk / Your lips move but you can't talk / Tryin' to throw your arms around the world"
Things have gotten too big, out of focucs. She has neglected herself, her marriage, for something else. And she has paid the price. Maybe she is stumbling home drunk. Maybe he is too.
"Your head hurts and you can't breathe / .....How far you gonna go / Before you lose your way back home"
"And a woman needs a man / Like a fish needs a bicycle / When you're tryin' to throw your arms around the world"
Someone is singing to her, comforting her. Who is singing? Her husband? Lover? Friend? All of them? He wants to take the hurt away. You can hear it in the vocals, the strain in his voice in the chorus. Her pain is his.
"I'm gonna run to you... / Woman be still ... / Woman I will"
Where does this leave them?
Track 10: Ultraviolet (Light My Way)
He is lost, in the dark, miserable. "Feel like trash, you make me feel clean / I'm in the black, can't see or be seen"
He sees her as his light, his salvation. "Baby...light my way"
She isn't an angel, their love is not perfect. "your love is like a secret / That's been passed around / There is a silence that comes to a house / Where no one can sleep / I guess it's the price of love"
But he is faltering. He needs to be saved. He is reaching out to her. As you listen to him and the music you find yourself being dragged onto the darkness, looking for that invisible ultraviolet light.
"Baby, baby, baby...light my way"
Track 11: Acrobat
Another crisis. This time it is him. This is a personal crisis of conscience. Another dark song of desperation. You can hear it in his voice. you can feel it in the music, dark and twisting and looming.
He is fighting an inner struggle. Facing demons, hypocrisy, confusion, alienation. All of these a part of him. Who has he become? What has he done to her, to them, to himself?
"When I first met you girl / You had fire in your soul / What happened your face / Of melting in snow" "No, nothing makes sense / Nothing seems to fit / I know you'd hit out / If you only knew who to hit"
And I'd join the movement / If there was one I could believe in ... / 'cause I need it now"
"And I must be an acrobat / To talk like this / And act like that"
As lost and confused as he is, he has not given up. He is begging her not to give up. There is hope, encouragement.
"And you can dream / So dream out loud / And you can find / Your own way out / You can build / And I can will..... In dreams begin / Responsibilities / And I can love / And I can love / And I know that the tide is turning 'round / So don't let the bastards grind you down"
Will it be enough? Will he find his way, himself? Will they find their way?
Track 12: Love is Blindness
From being blinded by the glory of love to just plain blind.
He is lost, blind, in the dark. But it is a darkness that he asks for.
"Love is blindness / I don't want to see / Won't you wrap the night / Around me / Oh my heart / Love is blindness"
Blindness is the ultimate form of denial. He can't see the tears in the relationship, what he has done, what she has done. What they have become.
"In a parked car / In a crowded street / ... Thread is ripping / The knot is slipping / Love is blindness"
He is stumbling in the dark. Gone is the glitz, gone is the carefree eagerness. Gone is the feel good, honeymoon love. He does still love her, but in darkness, blindness.
"Love is drowning / In a deep well / All the secrets / And no one to tell / Take the money / Honey / Blindness"
Will they remain in the dark? Or will they find the light? Is it over? Or is it beginning?
I don't have the answer to that. I do have an opinion. And I will keep it to myself.
I have the CD on repeat. The ride is about to start again and "I'm Ready..."
How about a few feel good love songs, sort of...
- Hard Rock Love Songs: falling in love
Think of your favorite love song, or even your top five. Who is singing it? What sort of music is playing? What are the lyrics? Were you picturing a long-haired headbanger? Electric guitars and crashing drums? Lyrics bearing a tortured soul? No?...