Posted Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2011, at 11:26 AM
Photo by BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
The next stop for the ’90s nostalgia train is Zoo Station. On November 1, Achtung Baby will be rereleased—in Deluxe, Super Deluxe, and Uber Deluxe editions. That will follow the tribute version of the album (featuring Patti Smith, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, and many others) coming out next week—and a Showtime documentary, From the Sky Down, that will air on October 29.
Well, of course, you might say. Achtung Baby is one of the bestselling albums by a massively popular, globetrotting band. It got great reviews, had multiple hit singles, and included one (no pun intended) iconic song. It’s been twenty years since it was released. The hoopla is entirely appropriate.
I disagree. And not because, like Simon Reynolds, I’m adamantly opposed to such “retromania.” I think there can be value in revisiting major cultural events from the past, and even in following the arbitrary guide of the calendar to do so. But there’s a cutoff, of course: Not everything is worth the fuss. For something to merit such lavish revisiting, it should be—to use a somewhat grandiose word that nonetheless seems more appropriate than any other adjective I can find—“epochal.” Does Achtung Baby fit the bill?
Not according to sheer popularity. The album has reportedly sold some 18 million copies worldwide: a bit more than Blood Sugar Sex Magik by the Red Hot Chili Peppers (15 million), in other words, but not quite as many as Metallica’s self-titled album (22 million). It has sold roughly the same number as Ropin’ the Wind, by Garth Brooks. (I’m just using 1991 albums as a barometer here—and I haven’t mentioned Nirvana’s Nevermind, which, like Michael Jackson’s Dangerous, has sold more than 30 million copies.)
So some element of artistic significance must come into this. The standard take is that U2 “reinvented itself” with Achtung Baby, “hit the reset button on its sound.” But that’s a bit overblown. In 2009, Sasha Frere-Jones was able to perfectly characterize the U2 sound—“a high, chiming guitar figure... a charging, near-military beat and bass line... and singing that is defiant and loud and slightly weird”—without any reference to the album. Yes, the band borrowed aspects of some less commercial forms—industrial music, eletronica—just like many bands both before and since have done to sustain themselves creatively.
U2 also altered its identity a bit with Achtung Baby, introducing a note of irony to the previously earnest proceedings. Bono, as he explains in the trailer to the documentary, appropriated Lou Reed’s glasses, Jim Morrison’s pants, and Elvis’s jacket (and “a little bit of his haircut”) to make an “identi-kit rock star” for the elabroate Zoo TV tour. But the irony didn’t really stick: It led to the disappointing albums Zooropa and Pop, and the band eventually “hit the reset button” again with 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, with which, as Bono said on more than one occasion, they reapplied “for the job” of “best band in the world.”
That sort of well-intentioned bombast, which continues to define Bono and U2, was fully formed by The Joshua Tree (25 million copies sold) at the latest. And it probably explains the extravagance with which they are now returning to Achtung Baby. U2 always goes big. And there’s a place for that, certainly. But we needn’t let it confuse us about their own place in recent cultural history.