“Achtung Baby” Twentieth Anniversary Addition: Even Better Than The Real Thing?

We kind of dreaded the idea that U2 was going to release a “deluxe edition” of Achtung Baby, pegged to the 20th anniversary of its release.  Divorced from the context in which the classic album was created — not just U2’s evolution from a band at the center of what mattered to its current (semi-functional) status as nostalgia act, but honestly, how many among its fans remember the glorious tension in the air after the Berlin Wall came down and the capital most fraught with history and ghosts became the locus for Eno and U2 to create a masterwork? — the prospect of the commercial packaging of Achtung Baby, with its coasters and branded rhinestone Bono-specks seemed worse than a joke, a symbol of a great band’s decline.  Remember too: twenty years ago this month, Nirvana’s Nevermind hit the charts, a moment that seemed as liberating as the Berlin Wall falling, but the question today of what that that release meant is as devoid of mystery as modern-day Berlin, the “sexy but poor” capital of the richest state in Europe.  Nevermind did not, alas, mean punk rock uber alles, though Achtung Baby certainly was the zenith of U2, both musically and as an authentic act.  Everything since, (some brilliant moments on Pop notwithstanding) from the phony dance rock of Zooropa to the pretty, pleasing anthem rock that followed, has been anticlimax.  So of course they package their greatest album with all sorts of bells and whistles, extracting one last pint of  lucre from this symbol of their past.

Except it’s great.  No, we don’t know about the box set and all that, but the extra songs available via the release on iTunes contain some gems.  Yes, we were able to get “Lady With The Spinning Head” and their cover of Creedence’s “Fortunate Son,” and I think that cover of “Paint It Black”  in earlier compilations.  But songs like “Blow Your House Down,” “Salome,” and even “Where Did It All Go Wrong?”, with it’s Gene Simmons barre chords are, well, at least as good as the real thing.  The big question with these repackages of classic albums that empty the cupboards is whether or not, had the newly released songs been included the first time around, they would have increased your sense then of the album’s greatness.  When the Stones re-released Exile On Main Street a couple of years back, the inclusion of new/old songs was delightful on any level, but I could understand why, with the exception of “Plundered My Soul,” those songs never made it out the first time.  (And of course “Plundered My Soul” was dropped because it too closely resembled “Tumbling Dice,” though in retrospect,  as much as this may qualify as apostasy, they may have chosen the wrong one to go out with in 1972.)  But then an album like Tell Tale Signs is released, containing not so much unreleased songs, but different versions of the songs Dylan and his producers chose for his albums from 1989 to 2006, and it was a bloody revelation: it actually made me remove Time Out Of Mind from my list of the greatest Dylan albums because I felt cheated: the songs not chosen were so much better than what he actually put out.

Several of the songs released with the “Deluxe Version” of  Achtung Baby would have made a great album even greater.  Yes, they border a little too closely on territory claimed by the songs that made it.  And it’s clear that they never got the full Eno treatment — they seem slightly less substantial than the original songs as they were dipped in the little genius’s sonic frying pan.  But they are well worth a listen, and it is well worth remembering just how great Achtung Baby was when it came out, and Europe was being remade, even as Nirvana was about to eclipse U2 as the band that truly mattered.  And it’s too bad things didn’t turn out all that well, for everyone other than Dave Grohl and U2’s bankers, none of whom we hope are German.

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