A Church I Can Receive In
Since the election, I can’t stop listening to U2’s “Achtung Baby.” It is music for apocalypse, twenty-five years prophetic. It’s the only thing that almost makes sense. We are only now catching up with it.
This isn’t 90s nostalgia. I know nostalgia when I feel it, and I am not particularly nostalgic for the 90s right now. In hindsight, it seems like (white mainstream) culture elected Bill Clinton, invented the internet, and locked itself inside a Chuck E. Cheese to play Whack-a-Mole with itself for most of the decade. In the sudden absence of an international Big Bad (“What? Communism gave up? I KNEW it!”), what consumed us seemed so trivial, so navel-gazey.
Not that there weren’t incredible reality-based stories being told. MeShell NdegeOcello’s records seemed like a transmission from the age of Amiri Baraka and Etheridge Knight (and occasionally were). Chuck D, Q-Tip, Spike Lee. “Angels in America,” Wynton Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields,” “Paris is Burning,” even “Rent”: it’s not like some people weren’t woke, or waking, AF, as fast as we could.
But none of that was the biggest band in the world. And in November 1991, “Achtung Baby” broke through so big, as only the new record from the biggest band in the world could.
It could have gone so wrong, the risk they took. When they went away to “chop down the Joshua Tree” and “dream it all up again,” it was time. We were tired of them, and tired of their shtick. “Rattle and Hum” made them into the blues brahs who stayed a little too long at the party talking about their Blind Lemon records. Too big, too self-aware of their own interest in American roots music and how Important It (They) Was. There was schadenfreude blood in the water. We love to force-feed an act that big its own popularity and make them choke on it, and we started to.
So they fooked off, had a really long nap and a massage, and started looking for a new angle. They went to Berlin because Bowie did when he was tapped out — and found inspiration not in that city’s energy, but in its death rattle on the eve on reunification. I won’t “Behind-the-Music” the making-of, but things got really tense. Their own big ears led them to bring in sounds that no one thought were U2 sounds. They had really bad fights. They had really good engineering. And their belief that “domesticity is the enemy of rock and roll” paid off, as they reappeared with a record that sounded not just like no U2 record, but no other record ever.
“Achtung Baby” was the first time I paused a disc on first listen to check the speaker connections because something didn’t sound right. (The second was Nine Inch Nails’ “Broken” two years later.) The metal-on-metal screeches and oscillations that start “Zoo Station” dump us off the cliff of our own expectations, crushing us in the starmaker machinery they themselves dove into for nearly a minute until Edge’s chiming guitar breaks through and we start to feel like maybe things will be all right.
We find out that their sojourn into the old, weird America has been worth the trip: “Rattle and Hum” was just their graduate thesis that cemented their mastery. They’ve fully metabolized and transformed blues conventions in “Even Better Than the Real Thing” and “Mysterious Ways”; the 1–4–5 is vital as ever, and has become something new as Clayton’s bass drops the bottom out at the exact moments we’ve come to rely on it holding us up. In case we miss the gospel progressions of “Acrobat,” they are echoed — on a church organ, natch — at the start of “Love is Blindness.” U2 reasserts the affinities between African-American and Irish outsider status, in ways completely unexpected and newly powerful.
“One” is a lighters-up stadium rocker, for sure — but goofs on its seriousness, and on us for looking to them anymore for the steady reassurances of “Pride (In the Name of Love)”. Watch the video again (one of the several that were made), and see Bono stop lip-syncing at the moment of the vocal climax. He has a little laugh at how fully he had us in his hand, how fully we’d bought that he was in that little cafe, singing just to us.
And that’s why, maybe, the record is all I can listen to. It was forged on the eve of a brave new world, when the old bogeymen who terrified us to our face were dead and dying and the new world (order) was just coming into focus and Feeling Our Pain. It’s a record that had a sense of the high stakes of what was happening: how little of the story was making sense, even when we slid down the surface of its gorgeous things. It’s fin-de-siecle music that still loves the Gilded Age, and mocks us for how badly we need it all to be true.
The record’s enduring heart might be the track they contributed to Wim Wenders’ “Until The End of World.” The song drowns us in the same churn as our “sorrows that learned to swim,” the bass disappearing beneath the waves at the very moment we want it to be our firm footing, only letting us break the surface to breathe in the riff’s eight bars whenever it cares to come around, when our lungs ache for it.
“Achtung Baby” suffocates and terrifies me, twenty-five years later.
It exhorts me to “Watch More TV” — as if I possibly could.
It tells me to not let the bastards grind me down — even as it bashes me against the rocks.
It’s the only thing that feels right — as my country crashes through the looking-glass and takes the rest of the world with it.
It’s the fiddling that makes me dance — even while I race buckets to the river.
Because even with all of this, it doesn’t think we have to burn, somehow. It still believes in something. Even if love is blindness and the thread has dropped from our fingers too numb to feel, love is still love is still love:
A little death
And no warning
Baby, a dangerous idea
That almost makes sense
Somehow we’ll survive. But not until the world we have made is good and finished with us.