20 Years After 'Achtung Baby '

by Elmo Keep

I recently attended a wedding, and it was, as weddings are wont to be, an almost transcendentally beautiful occasion. It was held on the grounds of a giant sandstone Federation house (who can honestly call something with guest quarters off-site a house?) sitting on miles of pristine green acreage. Fairy lights in the shape of love-hearts hung from the trees. The air smelled of freshly cut grass. Butlers stood with umbrellas armed for the possibility of rain to escort you the few feet to the bathrooms. The food was unlike any food I’d ever tasted. The country estate on which is was held, several hours outside of Sydney, was secured by its owners when they outbid Kylie Minogue.

Earlier, as the sun went down, a string quartet struck up at the appearance of the barefoot bride. And because the couple were so young and so filled with hope and optimism, and also because it would have been the dickest move in the world, I could not bring myself to say that the choice of song — U2’s With or Without You — despite its popularity at this exact event and countless thousands of others over the last 25 years, is such a weird choice. A weird, weird choice of wedding song. Because it is, like many other songs written by U2 that would be loosely labelled a “love song,” about a sadomasochistic sexual relationship.

This may cause you some cognitive dissonance if your perception of U2 is one of sexless, God-bothering, self-serious blowhards, or of an increasingly irrelevant U2 cover band (and over the last decade, of the latter you’d be right), kind of like finding out that Bart Simpson is a woman. It’s easy to think of them that way if you only slide down the surface of things.

The sadomasochism began in earnest around the time of “Joshua Tree,” and previous to that their records could be roughly categorised as:

• “Boy” = adolescent fumbling;

• “October” = isolatingly intense spiritual exploration;

• “War” = leftist agitprop (and a record with two genuine love songs);

• “Unforgettable Fire” = unsexy, deliberate European weirdness care of Brian Eno.

After then, all of U2’s anti-love songs were at their core about the absolute, ferocious difficulty of being with another person for the long haul. So maybe, actually, “With or Without You” is the perfect and most honest wedding song choice ever?¹ I should not judge. I am not married. Who knows what goes on in the sex lives of others? Perhaps it’s the line, ‘And you give yourself away,’ that makes so many people choose it for their nuptials.


But “With or Without You” is not even subtle in its imagery: it’s all beds of nails and a thorn twisting in a woman’s side, tied hands and bruised bodies, a man left with “nothing to win and nothing left to lose,” (so Bono’s predilection for the rather ham-fisted image goes). It’s up there in its mass misinterpretation with “Born In The USA.” This is not a love song, it’s a song about bondage. And as so often happened with U2’s output, it was easily interpreted as a Christian analogy for the crucifixion. Which I guess, fine? If that suits your motives. Though it’s hard to envisage exactly where the lines, “She makes me wait,” and “You give it all, but I want more,” fit within that line of reasoning.

There’s little elsewhere on “Joshua Tree” to suggest even a shred of romantic hope. The record closes with a dedication to one of the band’s crew who was killed in a motorcycle accident; another song posits itself in the mind of serial killer; another mourns the unburied dead of the Augusto Pinochet regime; another was about Dublin’s lower working class heroin addicts; yet another is told from the viewpoint of a solider in El Salvador and the single which opened the record, “Where The Streets Have No Name” — so rousing a live song that U2 have never dropped it from their set in the two-plus decades since — is about a couple who yearn for oblivion and escape from a place where they’re “still building then burning down love.”

This decidedly uncheery collection of songs made U2 totally, stupidly, inescapably famous for a sound which soared in ways that left writers to describe it quite undescriptively as “widescreen,” (sounding like what, exactly?) It was a sound they would come to find suffocating and so gleefully bulldozed over it four years later with what would go on to be the career-defining “Achtung Baby,” out 20 years ago last month. The anniversary of this has U2 questioning their future and critics reassessing their past. Oh, and a reissue that will set you back $589.

“Everything out there is against the idea of being a couple,” Bono told author and band biographer Bill Flanagan in early 1992. “I’m still in awe of the idea of two people against the world, and I believe it is to be against the world, because I don’t think the world is about sticking together.” It’s interesting to note here that at in early 1992 Bono had been married to his wife — to whom he is still married — for ten years already. But “Achtung Baby” is an opus of acrimony which makes “Joshua Tree” look positively sunny, and was so difficult for the band to produce that they nearly split up in the process.

“Achtung Baby” was a record about the extraordinary lengths to which people will go to psychically wound each other as deeply as possible (“I’m only hanging on to watch you go down, my love.”) While explicitly about the divorce that guitarist Edge was in the middle of at the time, lyrically “Achtung Baby” was, like all things ever written, ever, also about the writer. “I don’t know which came first, to be honest,” Bono told Flanagan in one of the hundreds of interviews the two sat for over the four year course of the recording and touring of “Achtung Baby.” “The words or what Edge went through, they’re all bound up in each other… I’ve had my problems in my relationship, it’s tough for everybody. I think fidelity is just against human nature. It’s where we either engage or don’t engage our higher side.”

The sadomasochistic allusions hit their full stride on “Achtung Baby,” and it would be hard to read lines like, “You can swallow, or you can spit/You can throw it up, or choke on it” as anything other than what they are. “Clockworks and cold steel/fingers too numb to feel,” “Love is Blindness” grinds mechanically. “Head in heaven/fingers in the mire,” Bono sang on “So Cruel,” a song he’d originally written for Roy Orbison. There was “Mysterious Ways”’ incantation to oral sex: “If you want to kiss the sky/Better learn how to kneel.”

Then there was “One,” the song around which the album was built. A song U2 liked so much they made three videos for it. In the years since its release, “One” has been reconfigured inside U2’s considerable mythology as a unification touchstone, when in reality it is — more than any other song of theirs — exceptionally bitter and riddled with sexual dysfunction: “Did I disappoint you/Leave a bad taste in your mouth?” the protagonist asks, though he doesn’t really care. It’s a song saddled now with so much additional baggage (Mary J. Blige?) that you need to listen to Johnny Cash’s barebones cover to glimpse its original intent.

Horribly, “One” — You ask me to enter/But then you make me crawl” — was for a long time the go-to track for emotionally laden newscast montages. It’s central conceit — “We’re one/But we’re not the same” — is not a plea for unity but rather an explicit truth about being in a union: it is going to be hard for two people to make it work, people who “Hurt each other and we do it again.” Still, “One” is U2’s enduring torch song, no small feat for such a fatalistic track which also has no chorus. It’s a pretty great song.

U2 continued to mine this terrifically rich vein of dysfunction through “Zooropa,” another loveless Europop wasteland complete with odes to masturbation, right up until the wonderfully misguided “Pop.” There Bono riffed on another favoured topic: exploring his Oedipal complex on the most giant canvas possible, (“Mother, am I still a child? No one tells me no,”) mixing in a little pre-millennial angst: “Jesus, help me/ I’m alone in this world and a fucked up world it is too.”

Critically panned, U2 have spent every record since “Pop” erasing it from their history and releasing records increasingly indistinguishable from one another, filled with Pollyanna sing-song rhymes (“A mole! Digging in a hole!”) and laden with overreaching pathos which add up to nothing. Perhaps only Bono could have rendered the accidental auto-erotic death of his friend Michael Hutchence as a suicide in ways so insufferably naff and reductive as “You’re stuck in a moment and you can’t get out if it.” Thank you for the tautology lesson. Stuck, and you can’t get out? Amazing.

U2’s most recent tour, 360º, was the highest grossing of any ever staged. And it was literally about nothing other than its own sheer immensity. It was named after the fact it was played in the round. It’s hard to imagine that this was the same band who toured Zoo TV twenty years ago; a tour that was a prescient technological reading of the decade which followed it. It’s harder still to picture the band who subverted the love song with paeans to S&M.

That’s because U2 aren’t the same band. After 35 years, they turned out to be the very thing they set out against as a scrappy bunch of post-punk kids in working class Dublin: the dinosaur supergroup. They now write songs like “Beautiful Day,” ostensibly about the Zen-bliss state of losing all your worldly possessions, which, coming out of their mouths is about as convincing as Mick Jagger singing, “You can’t always get what you want.” (He did; they haven’t.)

U2 seem now to be a band intractable, incapable of taking the sort of risks which were necessary to produce a record like “Achtung Baby”; breaking completely with their past, even if they are better situated than nearly any other band working today to do that again, right now. They could bank it all on a change of scene, just as they found inspiration in Berlin twenty years ago. “I want to go to Vegas,” Bono recently told Interview of where the band might record next. “I think that would be fantastic. I could go to Las Vegas. I’ve got a hairy chest.”

When R.E.M. disbanded in September, Michael Stipe aptly quoted a “wise man” saying, “The skill in attending a party is knowing when to leave.” U2’s quest has always seemed to be for some reason, to be relevant. Not great, or even good. They want to remain relevant, a typically obtuse yardstick to measure oneself by in 2011. But not only are U2 the last ones at the party, they’re the only ones. Tiredly uttering the same phrases to each other, over and over.

¹If it’s possible that up until now you never thought of this song in this way, and it was your wedding song and it is now a little bit ruined for you, I am really incredibly sorry! But do suggest, also, that you take it up with Bono?

Elmo Keep is an Australian writer living in Ballarat, Victoria, though she did recently attempt to interview Vincent D’Onofrio in New York. Photo by “Clancy3434.”