Achtung Baby seemed like a pivotal record in U2’s history when it was released in 1991, and it’s no less important 20 years later. But it’s wasn’t the actual songs that moved U2 forward so much as what they signaled about the band’s approach to its own fame and image. Musically, Achtung Baby is just as concerned with matters of the heart and spirit as 1987’s The Joshua Tree. And it’s as wrapped up in hero worship and aligning with rock ’n’ roll greats as 1988’s polarizing Rattle & Hum. It’s just that U2 deftly altered its style and frames of reference; out went the previous two albums’ earnestness, Bob Dylan and Beatles influences, and obsession with America, and in came irony, pan-Europeanism, and David Bowie’s Berlin period.
Strip away that context, however, and Achtung Baby sounds a like a typical U2 record—a terrific U2 record, arguably the best record U2 has ever made, but not exactly the decisive break from the band’s past it is remembered as. What Achtung Baby instead represents is U2’s last great creative gasp, evidenced by the album’s new reissue in various formats, including two multi-disc “super deluxe” and “über deluxe” editions, which compile a wealth of B-sides, remixes, and alternate tracks, as well as the entirety of Achtung Baby’s follow-up, 1993’s Zooropa.
The expanded editions of Achtung Baby show that Zooropa’s more radical experiments actually began a few years earlier, as U2 tried to figure out just how different it wanted to sound as the ’90s dawned. The outtake “Down All The Days” uses essentially the same backing track as Zooropa’s out-of-left-field first single, “Numb,” but with Bono singing a more direct melody than the monotone drone of The Edge’s eventual vocal.
The voluminous extras are enlightening for hardcore fans looking to retrace the band’s dalliances with ambient and industrial music, like on the fascinating but minor B-side “Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle Of Milk/Korova.” But what ultimately stands out about Achtung Baby is how most of those influences were eventually filtered out. As excited as U2 (particularly Bono and The Edge) were about the mix of noise and dance beats coming out of the European underground at the time, this was still primarily a straightforward rock band. “Mysterious Ways” dabbles in Madchester rhythms, and “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and “The Fly” nod slightly to shoegaze bands, but they remain immediate guitar-pop songs tasked with connecting with millions of people at once.
The power of Achtung Baby is that it was able to do this while still seeming like a personal statement. The album’s signature song, “One,” is loaded with big sentiments about the need to love and be loved, but it speaks directly to individuals, not a faceless mass of people. U2 has often been guilty of confusing oversized gestures for universality, but Achtung Baby won over hearts one at a time.