Achtung Baby at 30

Aarik Danielsen

The late troubadour Rich Mullins once spoke of the Bible in terms that blur the line between invitation and warning, calling it “a book full of all the greed and glory and violence and tenderness and sex and betrayal that benefits mankind.”

Mullins’ words suit Achtung Baby, an album of biblical proportions. Few records make such sweeping and specific study of the great plot points of human drama as the U2 offering, celebrating its 30th anniversary on Nov. 18. Our finest points—and most regrettable affairs—come through loud and clear as the band creates a widescreen narrative of sin and the hope of spiritual consummation.

Achtung Baby arrived four years after instant classic The Joshua Tree, U2’s trek across the wide expanse of the American experiment. Here, the Irish outfit fixed its gaze on the site of cultural change at the Cold War’s close, folding in sonic stylings from across the European continent. From buzzy, apocalyptic opening statement “Zoo Station” to the spare, hymn-like closer “Love is Blindness,” this is U2’s most diverse record. And thanks to sublime synchronicity from bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr., it’s the closest thing to an R&B record in the band’s catalog—soul music for the darkest nights of our collective soul.

Achtung Baby amplifies the noise of the lives we construct for ourselves, while also making space for the rare silences we allow—moments when our minds wander to wonder if everything will really be alright, if love can really lead us home. This elusive assurance is Bono’s great project, the thing he’s after. Miles past The Joshua Tree, he still hasn’t found what he’s looking for. But sojourning on like a patron saint for all true believers, he continues the chase.

Throwing a little light on all our paths, the band clarifies our common condition—restless and seeking—passed down like an unwanted inheritance across the ages. The singers of these songs keep company with their biblical forebears, wandering past the same desert landmarks, asking for the same signs and wonders.

Sometimes they do so explicitly. Bono plays the part of Judas, smitten with the messiah but impatiently waiting on him to fulfill his destiny (“Until the End of the World”). Elsewhere he calls a lover to do the Spirit’s work and ignite a Pentecostal flame (“Mysterious Ways”). At the end of the album he testifies that, whether we hitchhike to Damascus or not, love always reorients our way of seeing (“Love is Blindness”).

Achtung Baby amplifies the noise of the lives we construct for ourselves, while also making space for the rare silences we allow.

U2 also casts lots with the early mystics, slipping into the space between desires. Some listeners browbeat bands for obscuring the subject of their songs. Are they after God or a girl? After more than 30 years listening to U2, I’m convinced it’s often—if not always—both at once. To Bono, human love is no mere symbol or stand-in for the divine; it’s the closest we come to heaven in this body, words of passion and grace made flesh.

This explains how perhaps the most aching ballad of the past 30 years, “One,” can also be an aspirational psalm. “Love is a temple, love the higher law / You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl” expresses both the demands of human love and their divine satisfaction. Bono’s claim that all will someday be one echoes a line from The Joshua Tree (“I believe in the Kingdom Come / Then all the colors will bleed into one”); his wordless vocal across the song’s coda forms the “amen” to that prayer, his “may it be so.”

Ending his discourse, Rich Mullins says the Bible “does not give us answers fitted to our small-minded questions, but truth that goes beyond what we even know to ask.” U2 asks existential questions in arena-sized songs, yet an even more momentous reality answers back. A theme returns throughout Achtung Baby: love is costly, yet worth its price tag.

Bono feels this for himself and on our behalf, throughout songs like “One” and “Ultra Violet (Light My Way).” On the latter tune, he literally sings, “I guess it’s the price of love / I know it’s not cheap.” Love always costs both the giver and receiver. One gives themselves while the other gives up their right to retreat, their hope of hiding in garments fashioned from fig leaves. Couples with many years behind them know this price. Jesus knows it more, even as his love for the church is freely given.

What comes of all this cost? Bono steps into the clearing and up to the microphone, pronouncing good news on the bridge of “Mysterious Ways”: “One day you’ll look back, and you’ll see / Where you were held, now by this love.” A love which chooses to pay the cost endures. Like a tattoo across the breast or the ground beneath our feet, it outlasts circumstance. Spouses see this as their vows prove truer and truer with time. Christians know it in the grip of an unchanging God who promises to hold them fast forever.

This is the overwhelming impression left by so many great works of art: C.S. Lewis’ Narnia novels, Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life, and U2’s entire catalog, among them. Greed and glory, violence and tenderness, sex and betrayal are bound to come. In every danger—in the achtung—we are kept safe by one love, one blood.

Topics: Music