Achtung Baby, U2's seventh studio album, was released in 1991, and was probably the most dramatic New Sound Album in the band's career. Sensing a backlash building against the earnest, socially conscious roots music of the late 1980s, U2 decided to stick to personal subjects lyrically and musically incorporate industrial and electronic elements while keeping the sound accessible. The result allowed the band to eschew labels of pretentiousness, which made them more personable to audiences worldwide.
The album has an infamously Troubled Production in which the band came close to breaking up, due to the failure of 1988's Rattle and Hum and personal problems in the band such as The Edge's impending divorce. The band separated temporarily to pursue other interests before traveling to Berlin, where the reunification of the city inspired the band members to channel their frustrations through music. The writing of "One" saw a breakthrough, and all the ensuing recording sessions to follow were far more successful.
Achtung Baby won a Grammy Award for Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, and it is generally hailed as one of the best albums of all time. It currently stands at No. 63 on Rolling Stone's list of the greatest albums of all time, and is included in the TIME All-Time 100 Albums. Singles from the album include the signature songs "One" and "Mysterious Ways," along with "The Fly", "Even Better than the Real Thing," and "Until the End of the World." The outtake "Blow Your House Down" was released as a promotional single for the 20th anniversary edition. An alternate version of the track "Until the End of the World" was also featured in the 1991 Wim Wenders film of the same name, and is featured on the movie's soundtrack album (being the penultimate song on CD and cassette copies and the final song on LP ones; the latter cuts out some material, including the four pieces of incidental music by Graeme Revell).
In addition to the 20th anniversary edition, a charity album called AHK-toong BAY-bi Covered was released in 2011, featuring artists as diverse as Depeche Mode, The Killers, Snow Patrol, and Damien Rice performing covers of each of the songs. This shows the widespread influence Achtung Baby has had among many artists, both contemporary and new.
- "Zoo Station" (4:36)
- "Even Better Than the Real Thing" (3:41)
- "One" (4:36)
- "Until the End of the World" (4:39)
- "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" (5:16)
- "So Cruel" (5:49)
- "The Fly" (4:29)
- "Mysterious Ways" (4:04)
- "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World" (3:53)
- "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" (5:31)
- "Acrobat" (4:30)
- "Love Is Blindness" (4:23)
The 20th anniversary in 2011 produced some mega-deluxe editions, which excluding covers and remixes included the following B-sides and outtakes:
- "Lady With The Spinning Head"
- "Blow Your House Down"
- "Heaven And Hell"
- "Oh Berlin"
- "Near The Island"
- "Down All The Days"
- "Alex Descends Into Hell For A Bottle Of Milk/Korova 1"
- "Where Did It All Go Wrong"
- "Everybody Loves A Winner"
- Bono vocals, guitar
- The Edge guitar, keyboards, vocals
- Adam Clayton bass guitar
- Larry Mullen, Jr. drums, percussion
- Brian Eno Record Producer; additional keyboards
- Daniel Lanois Record Producer; additional guitar, additional percussion
Even Better Than the Real Tropes:
- Abstract Apotheosis: "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" has multiple interpretations, but most agree that the subject is not a person, but a concept, whether it's love or Mother Nature:You're an accident waiting to happen
You're a piece of glass left there on the beach
Well you tell me things I know you're not supposed to
Then you leave me just out of reach
- Alternative Dance: U2's embrace of this sound was one thing that made the album sound so different from their '80s output.
- Break-Up Song: Bono was bemused to hear that some people have played "One" at their weddings, saying "Are you mad? It's about splitting up!" "So Cruel" concludes, "To stay with you I'd be a fool," while "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?" is dedicated to someone who's already leaving.
- Broken Record: "Baby, baby, baby... baby, baby, baby... baby, baby, baby, light my way" from "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)". Even more, the line is repeated numerous times. Bono deliberately did this as he had never previously written a song with "baby" in the lyrics and opted to take Refuge in Audacity, to the point that the album's engineer Mark "Flood" Ellis noticed the other band members wondering if it could be actually pulled off while he was preparing the final mix.
- Cover Version: The bonus CD contains a cover of "Paint It Black" from The Rolling Stones' Aftermath, and "Fortunate Son" by Creedence Clearwater Revival.
- "One" has been covered countless times, to the point where it has reached a reputation similar to John Lennon's "Imagine".
- A charity album called AHK-toong BAY-bi had cover versions of every song on the album by various artists (with the exception of "Even Better Than Real Thing," a remix by Jacques Lu Cont). Jack White does a Darker and Edgier version of "Love Is Blindness"; Nine Inch Nails did a poppier, slower version "Zoo Station"; and Patti Smith sings a country version of "Until the End of the World," among others.
- Darker and Edgier: The band have described Achtung Baby as "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree".
- Design Student's Orgasm: Anton Corbijn's cover art is very colorful and eclectic, itself announcing a change of direction for a band that had been the poster boys for Deliberately Monochrome.
- Destructive Romance: A major theme; the half-joking working title of the album was "Fear of Women." The most obvious examples are "So Cruel," "Love is Blindness," and "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses," while Bono has pointed out that "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" implies adultery with the line, "Your love is like a secret that's been passed around."
- Double Entendre: Word of God affirms that the line "A little death with no mourning" in "Love is Blindness" plays on the old-fashioned euphemism for an orgasm, "the little death." You can make what you will of the "going down" references sprinkled throughout the album...
- Funnily enough, when asked about the line "You can swallow or you can spit" in the song "Acrobat", Bono quickly insisted on changing the subject, not before he mumbled something about "69s being the most equal sexual position."
- Downer Ending: "Love Is Blindness" is a pretty bleak way to finish out the record.
- Drag Queen: The band had a brief stint as these in a video for "One," and a picture of Bono in drag appears in the CD booklet.
- Dream Sequence: "Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World," which is mostly a song about a hangover, has an incongruous bridge in which Bono describes a dream about Salvador Dalí. Also, a dream of sorrow in "Until the End of the World" brings Judas to regret his betrayal.
- Femme Fatale: "Salomé" is about one of the oldest ones in the book.
- The Gambling Addict: The narrator of "Lady with the Spinning Head" which is about Lady Luck:She's been gone but I knew she'd be back
She's got the rent, she put me in the black
The lady with the spinning head
Mean old man took away my car
Those credit guys they've got the power
- God-Is-Love Songs: "Until the End of the World" was written from the point of view of Judas when he betrayed Jesus, though without knowing that you might just take it to be a Ladykiller in Love song. "Mysterious Ways" has also been interpreted spiritually, especially since Bono likes to speak of the Holy Spirit as female. (In some live performances of the song he's added lines like, "Move me, spirit, heal me/Move me, spirit, teach me.")
- Gratuitous German: In the title. It doesn't have anything to do with the album's content, but the band chose it because they recorded the album in Germany (and because it was a Catchphrase of their engineer).
- Also, the B-Side "Oh, Berlin" has some German in it like "Köthner Straße achtunddreißig", the address of the recording studio where the band recorded the album.
- HeelFace Door-Slam: What happens to Judas when he finally reaches out to Jesus: "But you, you said you'd wait until the end of the world." Though technically, it doesn't say what will happen after that.
- Hypocrisy Nod: In "Acrobat":Well, I must be an acrobat
To talk like this and act like that
- In Mysterious Ways: "Mysterious Ways", depending on how you interpret it. See God-Is-Love Songs above.
- Intercourse with You: "Even Better than the Real Thing" is one of the few U2 songs that's a direct come-on: "Give me one more chance, let me be your lover tonight."
- List Song: "The Fly":It's no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
It's no secret that our world is in darkness tonight[...]
It's no secret that a friend is someone who lets you help
It's no secret that a liar won't believe anyone else
They say a secret is something you tell one other person
- Location Song: "Oh Berlin", obviously. It also mentions Lou Reed (who recorded his album Berlin in 1973) and David Bowie (who recorded the second part of his "Berlin" trilogy, "Heroes" in the city) among others.
- Love Is a Drug: Mentioned in "So Cruel":Her skin is pale like God's only dove
Screams like an angel for your love
Then she makes you watch her from above
And you need her like a drug
- Male Frontal Nudity: The CD booklet contains a photo of Adam Clayton standing completely naked.
- Mundane Made Awesome: The most popular music video for "One" by Phil Joanou mostly features Bono singing the song alone in a bar, downing drinks and cigarettes. Yet the way Bono does this particularly conveys disgust with the world.
- Muse Abuse: Mentioned in "The Fly":It's no secret ambition bites the nails of success
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration and sing about the grief
- New Sound Album: This album has been described as "the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree."
- Non-Appearing Title: The album title never shows up in the lyrics, though this trope doesn't apply to any of the songs.
- Pep-Talk Song: "Acrobat" is a very dark version, but ultimately it's still encouraging:And I know that the tide is turning 'round
So don't let the bastards grind you down
- Protest Song: Averted mostly, since the band wanted to move away from a more serious image and instead tackle more accessible subjects. However, "One" could be interpreted as a response to the AIDS epidemic, especially since for the single artwork, the band used images done by artist David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS-related complications the same year the single was released.
- Questioning Title?: Who is gonna ride your wild horses, anyway?
- Refrain from Assuming: Like many examples of this trope, "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)" stuffs its refrain into parentheses. "Ultraviolet" is only heard in a background vocal near the end.
- Religion Is Wrong: While "One" is decidedly not a Religion Rant Song, it represents the idea that it is noninclusive toward other people, and that the band desires a more spiritual connection.
- Shout-Out: The title is a reference to a line said by LSD in The Producers.
- Spiritual Antithesis: To The Joshua Tree, and probably even more to the point, to Rattle and Hum.
- The Stars Are Going Out: From "The Fly": "It's no secret that the stars are falling from the sky."
- Textless Album Cover: Sort of — the cover is all photographs, but one shows a hand with a pair of rings saying U and 2.
- Villain Protagonist: Judas in "Until the End of the World", as mentioned above. Also Herod in "Salome", though he's more the Anti-Villain of that particular story.