The Real Thing
One album, one band–a love letter
By Hannah Strom-Martin
Forget Britney and her clones. It’s rock and roll, thank God, not pop, that is the voice of sensuality in the modern age. Moreover, in rock, sexuality is religion. When we talk about rock “gods” what we’re really speaking to is rock’s uncanny ability to channel the divine force of creativity directly through the pelvis.
And no one knows this better than U2.
If there is a soundtrack for love and sex in the eye of the millennium, then it’s Achtung, Baby. The 1991 album by the Irish supergroup is not only the best thing they’ve ever done, it’s one for the ages. In 12 ass-kicking tracks, it explores every possible aspect of sexual/romantic love: the darks, the lights and the pesky grays. Ever had a lover who ate your heart directly off your sleeve? This album understands. While never losing sight of the pitfalls that love can wreak on a perfectly decent human being, Achtung, Baby also sees love as a direct conduit to God, alluding to its divine source through song titles (“Mysterious Ways”), lyrics and musical arrangements that take their cues from gospel, soul and classical requiem.
From the crunchy, empowered opener “Zoo Station” to the unsettling conclusion of “Love Is Blindness,” Bono and the boys explore love in an unflinchingly poetic light. Here is the celestial swoon of sexual consummation, the hot sweat of lust, the tragic opera of unrequited desire and the dark depression of self-delusion, all rendered as big and loud as human drama itself.
This is the album that brought us “One,” the bittersweet, soaring ballad of sensual union that Rolling Stone rightly named one of the top 100 songs of all time. Bono’s gift for poetry has never been more poignant or breathtaking than when he asks his lover if she’s come back “to play Jesus to the lepers in your head.” The Edge’s guitar had never tugged so many heartstrings. It’s a song whose themes most bands haven’t the brains to juggle: both the story of a relationship teetering on the brink of destruction and an affirmation that all will be well if two hearts act as one. It offers no reassurances. On any other album, it would be the glittering centerpiece; on Achtung, Baby, it’s just one jewel among many.
Like love, the songs on Achtung, Baby are a boiling mix of the sacred and the profane, the ideal and the cynical. The sex-on-a-stick preening of “Even Better Than Real Thing” swaggers around Bono’s coy lyrics as he cajoles his hesitant lover. But any chance that this is your straightforward rock seduction goes flying out the window once he kicks into the refrain: “You’re the real thing, / Yeah, the real thing, / Even better than the real thing.” The backup vocals soar wordlessly, like saints abandoning themselves to the rapture, but there’s something off-putting in this last line.
If this sweeping orchestra of sex isn’t “the real thing,” then what is? Is our protagonist a spurned man, merely settling to ease his pain? Or has he really obtained sexual enlightenment? Bono isn’t telling.
Some songs, however, are a blatant slap in the face. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?” finds the band apparently making music in a postapocalyptic junkyard, the hollow, broken sound of the Edge’s guitar howling through the blasted terrain of unsatisfied desire. “So Cruel” tackles the mind games of a one-sided relationship and the masochistic co-dependency that leads to its destruction. Both songs seem written for our overanalytical age, chronicles of our own painful self-awareness and our helplessness to do anything about it. As flawed as the relationship in “So Cruel” is, Bono can’t help but “need her like a drug.” The music of Achtung, Baby, full of ironic string sections and tinny blasts of static from the heart of darkness, concurs–and it confirms the sharpness of love when wielded by the hands of a drama queen.
Yet there is also hope to be found. In “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” Bono compares love to “a light bulb hanging over my bed,” giving strength when it is most needed. “Tryin’ to Throw Your Arms Around the World,” while allowing that “a woman needs a man / Like a fish needs a bicycle,” also soothes the romantic turmoil of the rest of the album by promising “Woman, I will.” In fact, even in the self-delusion of “Even Better Than the Real Thing,” the celestial soaring of Bono’s voice is affirmation enough.
Yeah, love is a right mess, but by God, taking a shot at ecstasy is worth it.
From the June 1-7, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.