by David Chiu
Photo of Bono by Steve Kalinsky, via Wikimedia Commons
More than 25 years ago, U2 underwent one of most radical transformations in music history: from sincere and idealistic Irish post-punk rockers in search of America, to a band embracing electronic and dance sounds with touches of irony, satire, and multi-visual glitz. In hindsight, the change was necessary to keep the band fresh, creative, and relevant, following the anti-climactic Rattle and Hum at the end of the ’80s. Throughout the ’90s, U2 recorded some of the most adventurous and dynamic music of its career with Achtung Baby (1991) and Zooropa (1993), both of which have now been reissued as double-albums on glorious 180-gram vinyl.
For those who caught on with U2 from the very beginning with 1980’s Boy, or even late with The Joshua Tree in 1987, it must’ve been a shock to listen to Achtung Baby in 1991 for the first time, as it was a reaction to everything that the band had done up to that point. Sonically the opening track, “Zoo Station,” contained the ingredients that defined U2’s sound for that decade: clattering electronic textures, noisy percussion and rhythms by Larry Mullen Jr. and Adam Clayton; wah-wah, funk-inspired guitar playing by The Edge; and the swagger, sexy and bombast of Bono’s singing. No doubt helped by the collective production and engineering work of Daniel Lanois, (and especially) Brian Eno and Flood, this was a newer-sounding U2 in league with other electronic and noise-inspired groups like the Jesus and Mary Chain and Depeche Mode. At the same time, however, U2 still retained unique its distinctive musical DNA that characterized the first phase of its career. Achtung Baby is a classic with so many memorable songs: the uplifting and burning rockers in “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” “The Fly,” and “Until the End of the World”; a bit of funk in “Mysterious Ways”; the universal anthemic ballad “One”; the romantic “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World” and “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses.” The emphasis on a fresh and experimental sonic approach recalls David Bowie’s brilliant and transformative work during his time recording at Hansa Studio in Berlin, which not surprisingly was where U2 made Achtung Baby. Oftentimes in rock, a band that does something quite new stylistically run the danger of alienating old fans and setting its career on a downward spiral. Not so with U2, as Achtung Baby made the band more popular than ever.
It took four years for U2 to release a new record in Achtung Baby since The Joshua Tree; on the other hand, it only took just more than a year for the band to release the follow up to Achtung Baby in Zooropa. Perhaps at the time, Zooropa, which recently turned 25, seemed like a rush job as it was recorded around the time of U2’s Zoo TV tour—it didn’t pack the one-two punch of Achtung Baby with accessible songs but rather felt more experimental than its predecessor (the record was produced by Flood, Eno, and The Edge). But in hindsight, Zooropa has some strong qualities and definitely ranks up there as one of U2’s finest, showing that what they did on Achtung wasn’t an one-off. Highlights include the funky and dancaeble “Lemon (accentuated by Bono’s falsetto); the lovely and dramatic ballad “Stay (Far Away, So Close)”; and of course the memorable and sparse-sounding track “Lemon,” with The Edge taking a rare lead vocal. Elements of electronica and funk still rear their heads in the atmospheric title song, “Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car,” Some Days Are Better Than Others,” and “Dirty Day”; the noisy and mid-tempo “Babyface,” sounds a bit like a homage Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground; and “The First Time” is an eloquent and subdued song that could’ve a contender for The Joshua Tree or The Unforgettable Fire. Quite unforgettable is the last track, “The Wanderer,” featuring the lead vocals of the legendary Johnny Cash–a precursor the Man in Black’s comeback with the American Recordings albums. This vinyl edition of Zooropa features additional remixes of “Lemon”and “Numb.”
U2 later took its electronic and dance rock sound to the ultimate extreme with Pop in 1997, before going back to basics with All That You Can Leave Behind. Sill, there’s no question that one has to admire the guts and chutzpah of the band to dramatically reinvent itself during this period, due to Achtung and Zooropa, where it would have been comfortable and safe route to keep making the same-sounding records.
Also reissued on vinyl simultaneously with the aforementioned two albums is the band’s first compilation, The Best of 1980-1990 (originally released in 1998)–ironically focusing on the first phase of U2’s career. Timing-wise, its original release may had been a olive branch to early fans who felt the band went too far with electronic sounds at this point. Alongside signature songs like “With or Without You,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “Pride,” it also contained a remixed version of “The Sweetest Thing.” Unique to this vinyl edition is the inclusion of “One Tree Hill,” which was not featured in the original CD version of the compilation.