while you can stand there, you could move on this moment

(30 september 2006)

ie. reading u2

achtung baby has always been my favorite album and i didn’t ever really understand why. it’s not an unconditional affection. i would argue it hasn’t held up quite as well as the much-maligned pop, which- though it’s a far less solid album- has such an avant garde sound that it could be released tomorrow and floor everyone. am also not a fan of the album version of “who’s gonna ride your wild horses.” the temple bar remix was better. but narratively speaking, achtung baby is without flaw. and we know how i love to speak narratively.

as a writer, i have to “read” everything- music, novels, poems, etc. and i know we’re not supposed to read anything but biography as biography, but- and this could be why i’m a biographer- i think it all is. so while i can think of achtung baby as not necessarily being bono’s journey, i can’t see it as just a random collection of great songs. as with a book, there’s a cohesive plot. however unintentional or haphazard, there is a story.

as though it were sweet valley high, i can no longer read u2’s oeuvre as anything but a continual narrative. because it so obviously is a continual narrative. the continental american tour of the joshua tree and rattle & hum leaves the protagonist dazed and exhillarated, stumbling about the berlin subway system in the opener of achtung baby. he’s done with the past and he’s frantic for something new. he screws it up and it takes him thirty-four songs to recover. you could love “mysterious ways” without ever having that context. but, to me, u2 is an important band because of that context.

reading the complete u2- ie. playing their albums in a chronological cycle- my favorite chapter comes between pop and all that you can’t leave behind. when the page is turned from the defeated, exhausted plea of “wake up dead man,” where the protagonist is literally on his knees begging for the second coming, to the total euphoria of “beautiful day.” obviously to get to the beautiful day, you have to plod through a whole hell of crap. lyrically, u2 spent all of the 90s doing this and i’d never before realized how that pulled together to make a central point.

in the grim little trip of achtung baby, there’s infatuation, adultery, manipulation, desperation, treachery, forgiveness, euphoria, resignation, love, hope, and a phone call from hell. it’s about taking a risk and getting burned and wounding everyone around you. it’s no accident that the protagonist continues reassuring himself with the line “it’s alright.” the ticking bomb in “love is blindness” leaves him paralyzed, numbed- by images, the past, the future- in the hypnotic zooropa. for nine tracks, he is “faraway, so close!” yet he cannot let go. he wanders away and doesn’t even have the heart to sing the last song himself. instead he hands it over to johnny cash and winds up in the discotheque of pop, the glitzy tangle of conversational tidbits born from a month-long bender in the south of france.

the narrative cohesiveness between these albums has fascinated me ever since all that you can’t leave behind was released. all the critics said u2 were “getting back to their sound.” what resonated with me was that their protagonist, after falling and crawling and pleading and running and wandering, had finally dragged himself to the ledge and made the jump. the jump that is laid out in “zoo station” when he says he’s ready for what’s next. when he repeats that he’s ready for the push.

and we believe him and we think achtung baby is that jump but it isn’t. listen to “mysterious ways” and you hear the line while you can stand there, you could move on this moment, follow this feeling. he wasn’t ready for the push in track 1 and he stayed put through track 9. achtung baby and the two albums after are all the scary shit that happens when you don’t jump, when you hold back, when you run away, when you try to throw your arms around the world. it’s only with the final plea of “wake up dead man” that he at long last takes the leap (i swear he’s gliding through the air in the last 40 seconds). and it’s only in “beautiful day” that he realizes the leap wasn’t so scary after all. that after the flood, all the colors came out.

2 thoughts on “while you can stand there, you could move on this moment

  1. Words can’t describe how much I agree with this – how beautifully put! I also have always considered Achtung Baby my favorite U2 album, and have vehemently disagreed with those critics who would dismiss Zooropa and Pop as U2 “losing their sound.” To me, it’s the darkness that pervades all three albums, the melancholy, the desperation, that I find so much more fascinating than their “happier” stuff. And it’s the descent into those darker places, the struggling to get out, the moments of (false) hope before the final, exhausted denouement in “Wake Up Dead Man,” and then the resurrection of “Beautiful Day.”

    I also think these albums, and especially Achtung Baby, represent the best lyrics U2 have produced; through this journey, which you have articulated here so very well, Bono really had something to say about the human experience without having to get all bombastic and holier than thou. Don’t get me wrong, I love some of the more political tracks of War or How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and obviously a more overtly political subtext is present in songs from Pop like “Please,” although maybe it’s not a coincidence that this song is the penultimate track on the album before succumbing to the final capitulation of “Wake Up Dead Man” (it’s a plea, not a command). But to me the band is at its best when they write songs stripped of self-importance and heavy-handed messages and just focus on real, complex emotions stemming from real, complex relationships, whether its with one’s father, lover, or God. And nowhere do they do this better than Achtung Baby.

    And on Achtung Baby the music is used so deftly to amplify, to shield, to distort the lyrics in ways that challenge the listener to push deeper into the songs and the entire album to try to figure it all out. The driving opening riff of “Zoo Station” announces you’re in for a ride, you’re “ready for what’s next”; the infectious beat of “Even Better” suckers you into thinking this album won’t be that heavy; the simplicity of “One”’s three chord progression provides comforting structure from which to express the highly complex emotions pouring out of the singer; the pleading tone of the line “oh come on, baby, baby, baby light my way” is masked by the major chord progression which dominates the song; the aching guitar riffs in “Love is Blindness” belie the distance Bono tries to put between himself and his emotions in that song, exposing the true depth of his crisis in the process. A masterful album in every sense of the word, one that I’m sure will always be my favorite.

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