It’s easy to critique the idea of U2 without providing a valid critique for the music. They’re too big – generally speaking, “subtle” is an adjective that rarely pops up in U2 reviews. They’re too earnest – only ironic detachment and ironic theatrics have a place in popular music, apparently, and big-rock U2 doesn’t fit the bill. Bono is insufferable – using his fame and visibility to talk about things like world hunger and social injustice. What a jackass, amirite? Or whatever people who hate U2 say. Either way, as the 20th anniversary of the quartet’s landmark album Achtung Baby looms nigh, one thing becomes clear – moreso than, even, the band’s other landmark albums, The Joshua Tree and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, well… nobody ever has anything bad to say about Achtung Baby.
Which makes a fair amount of sense – after all, depending on who you talk to, Achtung Baby is either the greatest album ever created by humans, or one of the greatest albums ever created by humans. (There’s probably a third category, but its inhabitants are perhaps far too marginal to really count.) It was a welcome transformation for a band who’d burnt themselves out a bit on stadium rock, and on Bono singing about Big Important Issues, and The Edge deploying that same chiming effect for every single song ever. This new, exciting version of the band – Mach U2? – took things a little bit inward, employed intricacy and dynamics, employed slight Krautrock and electronica influences, and, perhaps most importantly, retained their earnest, heart-on-sleeve soul in the process. It succeeded where follow-up Zooropa largely failed: it ushered in a new sound for the band without filing down what made them so special to begin with.
And so, just like 1991’s other prestige record Nevermind, Achtung is in the process of the full 20-years-on treatment, complete with a way-too-comprehensive reissue and a cheekily-titled tribute record compiled by a semi-prominent music rag (back in August, our own Gonzo reviewed Spin’s Newermind). This time around, Q Magazine brings us ACH-toong BAY-bi Covered, and a host of musical luminaries are on deck to pay tribute to what may or may not be the greatest album ever recorded by humans.
Naturally, with an album this iconic, the results are a bit scattershot. The artists involved, generally, get generous amounts of brownie points for not simply recreating the original tracks – it’s a bit of a pleasant surprise to find that very few acts here are interested in slavishly aping U2’s signature sound. For better or worse, these artists – a more than capable lot, all told – craft these versions in their own particular style.
And, yeah, that doesn’t always work out. Nine Inch Nails’ take on opening track “Zoo Station” is remarkably static – U2’s remarkably dynamic original dwarfs Trent Reznor’s severely monotonous version. And then there’s Patti Smith, who’s pared-down, acoustic “Until the End of the World”, like NIN’s track, largely lacks energy, a glaring flaw when reworking one of the original album’s more lively numbers. Fellow countryman Damien Rice gets in on the act with a stab at the iconic “One”, but largely misses the mark: Rice, capable of emotive wailing on his own songs, dials things back to the point of monotony, and the female harmonies that add texture to his records are buried so low they’re barely perceptible. (He also makes the perplexing decision to shift the song’s focus, switching around a lot of the personal pronouns, a ballsy gambit that doesn’t work because he doesn’t switch them all around, thus confusing the song’s natural narrative.) And then there’s Glasvegas, whose take on the heartfelt “Acrobat” suffers from layering every component in a layer of grimy distortion; the results are ugly.
But there’s good news, too. For example, a long-dormant Garbage, who emerges from exile to do sweet justice to the mid-album ballad “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?”, a version just programmed enough to be recognizable as Garbage, but beautifully respectful to the song’s integrity. Ditto Depeche Mode, who contribute an excellent slow-burn to the heartbreaking “So Cruel”. Elsewhere, The Fray turn “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World” into a Fray song with startling ease, and Gavin Friday turns “The Fly” into a Leonard Cohen song, complete with bassy sing-speak in the choruses. ACH-toong‘s MVPs, however, remain The Killers and Jack White – The Killers pattern the glorious power ballad”Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” into something of a spiritual sequel to their own “All These Things That I’ve Done”, complete with non-sequitur intro and lengthy outro. It’s a classy performance, and the perfect example of this sort of thing done right, harnessing the strengths of both the original song and the artist. White, meanwhile, transforms unsettling album closer “Love Is Blindness” into the sort of stark, unhinged murder ballad that White’s so proficient at; where the relatively static original hinges more on mood than dynamics, White builds to a frenzied crescendo, complete with a howling, wild-man octave-jump that manages to keep the song’s spirit intact through decidedly different means. It’s pretty much awesome, and bodes well for the remainder of Jack’s post-Stripes career.
ACH-toong BAY-bi, of course, isn’t a substitute for Achtung Baby. But those of us who are intimately familiar with the original versions of these songs can take a considerable amount of pleasure in hearing them in this new context. With that, of course, comes the caveat that there’s also a fair amount of stuff that makes the purist in each of us bristle a bit – as good as The Killers taking on “Ultraviolet” is, for instance, there’s a moment where frontman Brandon Flowers mangles the timing of Bono’s ultra-emotional third verse, and yeah, it’s weird – but that’s to be expected. At its best laudable, and at its worst merely plodding, ACH-toong BAY-bi is always interesting.
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