We Are Not the Same: U2’s Achtung Baby

The drama and momentum of “The Fly” still reach me, especially when Bono sings, “It’s no secret that a liar won’t believe anyone else.” I have known many people like that. The hushed intensity of Bono’s singing is persuasive, nearly incantatory; and the guitars do their own spooky conjuring.

By Daniel Garrett

Achtung Baby
Producers: Daniel Lanois
with Brian Eno
Engineer/mixer: Flood (and Steve Lillywhite)
Island Records, 1991

“I’m ready, ready for what’s next” are among the first lines in “Zoo Station,” the starting song of the U2 album Achtung Baby, and “Zoo Station” is a song that declares, “Time is a train, makes the future the past, leaves you standing in the station, your face pressed up against the glass.” I had thought of the band U2 as producing songs thick with ambition and sentimentality, desperate to mean something not only to a generation but to the world, but with Achtung Baby, I became—after years of indifference and vague interest, depending on the individual song—one of the band’s listeners. Sounding like a futurist choir with a repertoire of songs of sin and redemption in a time of industry, possibility, and spiritual need, a time of machine noise and intimate whispers, with Bono’s bellowing driving the songs and supported by drumming—constant, rhythmic, mesmeric, and guitar strumming that can caress or strike, the song “Zoo Station” is appropriate prelude. In “Even Better than the Real Thing,” Bono sings “Give me one last chance and I’m gonna make you sing” and though he is singing to a lover he could be singing to an unconverted audience, one that may be swept up in the passion and range of Achtung Baby. Bono’s entreaties are sensual and soulful, promising a seduction that might lead to gratitude or regret: who knows? Bono (voice, guitar), with The Edge (guitar, keyboards, and voice), Adam Clayton (bass guitar), and Larry Mullen (drums, percussion), with their producers (and sometime musicians) Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno produced a transcendent recording.

In “One,” Bono’s voice sounds like that of a man trying to speak the truth though it hurts, and the haunting song, which was given new life recently when sung by Mary J. Blige, has words—honest, cruel, true—such as “You act like you never had love, and you want me to go without” and those words describe lovers, friends, family, and political colleagues: they describe people for whom bitterness is a daily diet, an addiction, a party pledge, a shared secret, a monstrous orientation. We are human together but not identical, and freedom begins when we see our differences: “We’re one, but we’re not the same.” We are tempted away from that knowledge, tempted with a dream, tempted and betrayed: “You say, Love is a temple, love a higher law, love is a temple, love the higher law. You ask me to enter but then you make me crawl, and I can’t be holding on to what you got when all you got is hurt.” Where does responsibility to others end and responsibility for self begins? Enough—finish: “one life, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other—one, one.”

Union and disunion, camaraderie and betrayal, are also themes in “Until the End of the World,” in which the narrator says “We were as close together as bride and groom” and “I took the money, I spiked your drink.” There is something distant about Bono’s voice here, and something both driven and impersonal about the band’s playing: as if they are testifying to something larger than themselves, even when the narrator (Bono) sings, “In the garden I was playing the tart, I kissed your lips and broke your heart. You, you were acting like it was the end of the world” and “In my dream I was drowning my sorrows, but my sorrows they learned to swim…In waves of regret, waves of joy, I reached out for the one I tried to destroy.”

“You’re dangerous ‘cause you’re honest. You’re dangerous ‘cause you don’t know what you want,” begins the song “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” about an acquaintance who is both attraction and trouble, like a glimmering piece of glass on a beach, very similar to the person described in “So Cruel,” someone with a lack of appreciation for love: “The men who love you, you hate the most.” I like the shimmering rhythm in “So Cruel,” a shimmer I identify with Daniel Lanois, who worked on Bob Dylan’s great album Time Out of Mind, and who is fond of imbuing music with—or finding within music—a rare mystique. The narrator of “So Cruel” concludes, “Between the horses of love and lust we are trampled underfoot.”

The drama and momentum of “The Fly” still reach me, especially when Bono sings, “It’s no secret that a liar won’t believe anyone else.” I have known many people like that. The hushed intensity of Bono’s singing is persuasive, nearly incantatory; and the guitars do their own spooky conjuring. (U2 could be continuing the work of David Bowie’s Low and of the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls—and of countless poets.) Although I know Bono is quoting someone in a few of my favorite lines in the song regarding the immorality of artists, I can no longer recall the source; and the lines not only reach me, they reach into me: “It’s no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest, it’s no secret ambition bites the nails of success. Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief. All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief.” However, despite such incriminating pathos, I think that—sometimes—both inspiration and creativity can survive.

Some men write well about women—they have observations and insights; and some men write well about ideas of women—they write about women as dreams, as mysteries, and this last Bono does in “Mysterious Ways,” when he writes, “Johnny take a walk with your sister the moon, let her pale light in to fill up your room” and “Johnny take a dive with your sister in the rain, let her talk about the things you can’t explain. To touch is to heal, to hurt is to steal. If you want to kiss the sky, better learn how to kneel” and, of course, “She moves in mysterious ways.”

One of my favorite songs on the album is “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” the title alone being something I have felt on more than one occasion, a foolish, lovely feeling, one that cannot last—when one accepts all. The character in the song could be drunk—on wine, on a drug, on love, on hope, on poetry, on political rhetoric, on art. “Sunrise like a nosebleed. Your head hurts and you can’t breathe. You been trying to throw your arms around the world. How far you gonna go, before you lose your way back home?” sings Bono. (The harmonies in the song are odd, sounding as if the singers were recorded simultaneously in different rooms, an interesting effect.) And then, later, Bono sings, “I dreamed that I saw Dali, with a supermarket trolley. He was trying to throw his arms around a girl. He took an open-top beetle through the eye of a needle. He was trying to throw his arms around the world.”

In “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” the narrator says, “Your love is like a secret that’s been passed around,” and the love described seems full of trouble, and the characters in “Acrobat” also seem full of doubt and trouble: “I’d join the movement, if there was one I could believe in. Yeah I’d break bread and wine, if there was a church I could receive in.” Such faithlessness seems to fit our time: and all time; there are always reasons to be disillusioned—and if that is true, is it true also that there are always reasons for faith? Bono sings, “I must be an acrobat to talk like this and act like that,” an acknowledgement of self-division; of hypocrisy—and an admission that someone must make, as hypocrisy is something many of us are familiar with, but who names himself hypocrite, who makes the necessary confession, who begins the work of truth and reconciliation?

The album Achtung Baby ends with “Love Is Blindness,” a song of simple words that somehow equal pain, promise, and poetic glory: “Love is blindness, I don’t want to see” and “Love is clockworks, and cold steel, fingers too numb to feel. Squeeze the handle, blow out the candle. Love is blindness.” (It is interesting to hear the song again after becoming familiar with Cassandra Wilson’s interpretation, and the dark awareness she gives to lines declaring “a little death without mourning” and “love is drowning in a deep well, all the secrets and no one to tell.”) If love is blindness, is that our choice, or something that is simply fate? U2’s Bono sings, “Love is blindness. I don’t want to see. Won’t you wrap the night around me? Oh my love, blindness.”

Daniel Garrett is a writer of journalism, fiction, poetry, and drama; and he is interested in subjects such as individuality and community, pain and transcendence, and the cultural authority of artists (or, artists as truth-tellers and cultural legislators). He finds humanism and democratic socialism attractive. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, AIM/America’s Intercultural Magazine, AltRap.com, American Book Review, Black American Literature Forum, Changing Men, Cinetext.Philo, The City Sun, Film International, Frictionmagazine.com, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse-Apprentice-Guild.com, Option, The Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, The St. Mark’s Poetry Project Newsletter, 24FramesPerSecond.com, UnlikelyStories.org, WaxPoetics.com, and World Literature Today. Author contact: dgarrett31@hotmail.com