‘Achtung Baby’ and ‘Zooropa’: two albums where U2 got a little experimental and intriguing

With U2 making headlines as result of their current massive arena celebratory tour, playing crowd pleasers and marking 30 years of ‘the Joshua Tree’ this writer has instead decided now is a good time to rediscover the two studio albums proper (have decided to ignore ‘Rattle and Hum’ at this juncture) that followed both the already mentioned album, and ‘Unforgettable Fire’, whose tracks have also featured plenty on this ‘classic era’ U2 tour; desert rock melancholia, monumental guitar effects, and a transatlantic first-world social conscience.

Yep, both good records.

But it was what the group did in the studio between 1990 and ’93 that is surely more interesting. The ironic U2, the more European leaning, caustic U2 produced something more special and intriguing, and a sound the group has since not returned to. (1998’s ‘Pop’ is a flawed, weak affair; all hip-hop and big beat to-order, with a bunch of mostly flat and generally forgettable tunes. only good song: final track, the naked and truly hurting Wake Up Dead Man, a track that works mainly because it sounds unlike anything else on the record).

The story goes that someime around 1989, after the Joshua Tree-Forgettable Fire tour (ironically what it is the group are touring with now) U2 wanted a complete u-turn on the honest-to-goodness, overtly emotional rock that the group had developed into, got more and more drawn toward as the eighties progressed. The massively widescreen, and ridiculously massively successful, ‘Joshua Tree’ album was the point of no return, in many ways. This is where it would come to a head. Time for a new beginning, a fresh start.

Where else could they go from here?

‘Achtung Baby’, released deep into 1991, would be the answer. Right from the off, right from those metal-machine drums of Zoo Station, right from Bono’s muffled vocals, it was clear that this was U2 dispensing with their oldschool ways; albeit a form of rock music that they had invented. By 1987 noone else sounded like U2, they’d developed a sound all to themselves, and thus must be respected for tossing it all away (even if they were to return to some extent by 2000’s ‘All That You Can’t Leave Behind’).

Not totally, though.

They mixed it up. Listen to the pure Edge atmospheric rhythms of Until the End of the World and see how it coalesces with that Larry Mullen trip-beat. U2 had been listening to ‘Blue Lines’ as much as they had the Pixies, one suspects. Even Better Than the Real Thing is open-road freewheeling future rock, and Mysterious Ways a studio’d up four minutes of psych-funk modernism.

Even the more serene and unclad tracks, like One, and So Cruel have a very modern underbelly to the production, a kind of circler funky motion tying it all together.

It’s dance-motion rock music, and a kind of sound and mood and means of production that would go on to be found on many genres throughout the rest of the nineties, from Leftism, through to much of what Primal Scream would produce, from Cornershop, through to those big hits by the Verve.

By 1993 the group would release the even more blatantly experimental ‘Zooropa’. LP opener, the title-track, begins with two minutes of slow-creeping ambient weirdness before we hear anything remotely like U2; on this occasion those signature guitar effects as if looped in some locked-in beautiful dream. The Edge does some spoken word / purposeful ‘non singing’ on Numb, comically complementing Bono’s strange falsetto to a backing track of a single occasional crowd sample, intermittent vinyl scratching, and general backward loops.

Elsewhere the more straight-up Lemon is a really beautiful, compact and affecting piece indeed (and would have easily slotted right into ‘Achtung Baby’), and Dirty Day is all sin-and-repentance set to a loose groove and swirling feedback. And they even had time for a shadowy, synth wonker featuring Johnny Cash called The Wanderer.

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