Forget The Joshua Tree: Achtung Baby Is The U2 Album We Need Right Now
“But yes, I’m still running-”
U2 have been on the run for years. Running from their past, racing ever onward toward relevancy. Give the Dublin devils their due: most bands that have been around for as long as they have would have given up and rested on their laurels years ago. It’s that desire to push forward that’s driven them to greatness (their bold 90’s reinvention) and hubris (“How the hell did this album get on my phone?!”).
Until last year, that is. In 2017 the band pulled the wax from their ears and gave in to the siren song of nostalgia . The Irish quartet toured the US to play their 1987 classic The Joshua Tree in its entirety, joining the One Album Concert circuit that The Pixies, Springsteen, and so many others have struck gold with.
The band had said that their decision to take The Joshua Tree back out on the road was because the album’s yearning anthems and spiritual restlessness are more relevant now than ever before. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that was true, and that they weren’t doing it to make beaucoup bucks or as a goodwill effort to erase the memory of Songs Of Innocence, an epic cultural miscalculation on par with Crystal Pepsi and Jar Jar Binks.
And to give credit where credit is due: even if the tour was a shameless cash grab, they still put on a hell of a show.
There’s just one problem with the band’s rationale for resurrecting The Joshua Tree: they had picked the wrong album to tour. The Joshua Tree isn’t the soundtrack to our current cultural moment- Achtung Baby is.
At first blush, that sounds wrong, doesn’t it? The Joshua Tree is their hearts-on-sleeve masterpiece, a love letter to America, the sound of rock’n’roll pilgrims trying to find peace of mind. It was the apex of the band’s Most Earnest Band In The World phase, released hot on the heels of their last record which not only had a song about MLK on it, it also had a song called “MLK”!
With Achtung Baby, they embraced irony, dance music, decadence, smart-ass sound bites, and giant sunglasses. The world’s biggest boy scouts got caught smoking in the bathroom and ended up loitering in the shadow of the Berlin wall, making prank calls to the White House.
It’s the music they made in that time, in their era of Zoo TV and B&W music videos cribbed from “Wings Of Desire”, that speaks strongly to our present moment. It’s music made by exiles, full of lullabies and come-ons crooned by people who are convinced that God has abandoned them. If ever there was a time in our history when the Almighty has said “screw this shit” and slipped out the back door, surely now is one of those times.
The Joshua Tree has lovely, epic songs on it, songs that feel as expansive and wide as the horizon; Achtung Baby works on a smaller scale. It’s cramped and busy and noisy. The Joshua Tree is something to listen to while hiking in a national park; Achtung Baby is what the people in the condos built on the ruins of that park will listen to.
The songs on Achtung Baby feel personal, directed at specific flesh and blood people. They’re full of regret and desire; there’s hope there, too, but it’s a bruised hope, spiked with wariness. They’re songs sung by people who know how bad things can get, how even the sweetest of kisses can come from traitors.
The streets HAVE names in the world we live in now, painted in the blood of protesters and chalk outlines of shooting victims. We’ve held the hand of devils and escorted them up the stairs to their thrones. The blue sky threatens to go gray with bullets any day now, and not an hour goes by where it doesn’t seem like there’s a new wire being strung out for us to trip over. Viewed in a certain light, of course The Joshua Tree has relevance to our current moment. We seem to be living in its songs.
But what The Joshua Tree doesn’t offer us is a way out. It’s a great album for contemplation, for solemnity, for navel-gazing. The times we’re in now, that solemnity is a luxury most of us can’t afford.
That’s where Achtung Baby shines. It’s an album about embracing pleasure, beauty, and fun in the face of a totally fucked universe. It tells us to love things, even when they are fake. To accept that the people we are drawn to are mysterious and could hurt us, and that we ourselves could be that way too- a vampire or a victim, depending on who’s around.
It’s a piece of music that suggests thumbing your nose at God and living your life to the fullest is the best thing to do when you’ve been kicked out of the Garden of Eden. It proposes that the best way to fight absurdity is to lean into it even harder.
Bono and company’s ironic reinvention in the 90’s was brilliant because you could still see their old selves, winking underneath the layers of snark and world-weariness. They still cared, but they realized that caring too much and too often can run you down, it can burn you out, it can even make you do soft-as-baby’s-shit blues-rock. Being earnest 24–7 is a great way to be a killjoy, or to get yourself killed.
Embracing irony and artifice is a way to thrive in a fake world. And right now, we live in a world that’s growing more fake by the day. Listening to Achtung Baby reminds me of U2’s example, how they still strove to make the world a better place but realized that good drugs, better sex, and a sense of humor makes that struggle for change a lot easier.
Sometimes it’s easier to fight a devil by being an imp than a cherub.
A shorter version of this essay originally ran as a print piece last year in Phoenix New Times. Recently re-listening to Achtung Baby on a long drive to Tucson inspired me to exhume this piece and give it a second life on the digital plane. Shout out to David Accomazzo (one of several editors that I had/have the pleasure of working with at Phoenix New Times) for giving me the opportunity to write this piece back in 2017.