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U2'S 'Achtung, Baby': Apocalypse and Heartbreak

By Geoffrey Himes
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 17, 1991; Page G06

U2 has always made its best songs sound apocalyptic. Not only does Bono sing like an air-raid siren, but the band's rhythm section also plays with a twitchy urgency reinforced by the Edge's artillery assault of guitars, shuddering, whistling, crashing and burning. The Irish quartet has often applied that end-of-the-world sound to suitable topics such as the nuclear threat, "the troubles" in Northern Ireland, political prisoners, the British mining strike and the band's ongoing spiritual quest.

On its first album in three years, "Achtung, Baby" (Island), U2 applies that sound to the most apocalyptic subject of all: a broken heart. Of course, if it's not yours, a broken heart may seem like a minor subject compared with nuclear war, but if it is yours, nothing is more important. Rock-and-roll has known that from the start; in fact, no artist in any medium has better captured the immensity of teenage heartbreak than Phil Spector with his epic, orchestral "Wall of Sound."

U2 has always drawn from Spector (just listen to its version of his "Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home)" on 1987's "A Very Special Christmas"), and on the new album it captures adult heartbreak nearly as well as Spector got teen angst. "Achtung, Baby" draws its title not only from the album's initial sessions in Berlin but also from the juxtaposition of historical apocalypse (World War II's "achtung") and heartbreak (rock-and-roll's "baby"). Adult romantic pain is more ironic and ambiguous than the adolescent variety, though, and U2 replaces Spector's certainty with the doubt and confusion of stuttering rhythms and twisted, screaming guitar lines -- a clamor best described as the "Berlin Wall of Sound."

The first single, "The Fly," opens with guitars honking like a traffic jam from hell over an industrialized tribal rhythm. Bono whispers confessionally on the verses about stars falling from the sky and the sun going into eclipse "when she walks in the room." The guitars then give way to a smooth-flowing synth and sweet "sha la las" on the chorus as Bono whispers even more secretively that "a man will rise, a man will fall from the sheer face of love like a fly from the wall." The chorus is followed by an eruption of guitars snarling and screaming like Kafka's giant insect bemoaning his fate.

U2 evokes the optimistic beginning of a romantic relationship on "Ultra Violet (Light My Way)," which starts with a forlorn vocal drifting across sheets of synthesizers but then pulls together with a chunky guitar riff and the hopeful request, "Baby, baby, baby, light my way." As the arrangement builds from lean to massive, Bono's voice likewise rises from conversational doubt to wailing eagerness. The fulfillment of that hope is captured on "Even Better Than the Real Thing," which is shaped by three guitar parts: a punchy riff that locks into the galloping charge of the rhythm section, sustained-note phrases that cut across the vocal like sighs of satisfaction, and a chirping figure that supports the catchy melody of the chorus.

Most of the album, though, is devoted to love gone wrong. Slow numbers such as "One" and "Love Is Blindness" have a gospel quality, as swooning synth parts are set against block piano chords, and Bono acknowledges that mismatched lovers will suffer their inevitable fate. "Until the End of the World" features a slow-grinding guitar solo worthy of Neil Young and a complaint about a woman who can't have a good time because she's more concerned about "the end of the world" (as if Bono should talk).

The album's best song is "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses," which opens with crashing, thrashing guitars as Bono whispers, "You left my heart empty as a vacant lot." As a rhythmic groove emerges from the tangle of guitar distortion, so does a glorious melody for the chorus, and Bono breaks into his big, siren voice and cries, painfully, "Who's going to ride your wild horses? Who's going to take the place of me?"

This is not a flawless album. U2 is still limited by its humorless, relentless earnestness and by the frequent clumsiness of Bono's lyrics. Still, it has created an original, captivating sound and has executed it with a spectacular voice and three of the best instrumentalists in rock today. It has made heartbreak sound as overwhelming as it feels -- and that's no small feat. (To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call 202-334-9000 and press 8141.)

Bruce Cockburn: 'Nothing but a Burning Light' On its last album, "Rattle and Hum," U2 inserted a line by Bruce Cockburn into "God Part II," its tribute to John Lennon. It was a revealing connection, for both Bono and Cockburn are left-wing Christian mystics. Toronto's Cockburn is a much better lyricist than Bono (though a much less compelling singer) and an equal to the Edge as a guitarist. Except for his fluke 1980 hit "Wondering Where the Lions Are," Cockburn has never had much commercial success, though, and his 20th album, "Nothing but a Burning Light" (True North/Columbia), is his latest attempt to break though in the United States.

The album was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who has also done the honors for Los Lobos and Elvis Costello. Burnett pulled together an all-star band: Jim Keltner on drums, Mark O'Connor on fiddle, Joni Mitchell's husband, Larry Klein, on bass, Booker T. himself on organ and Jackson Browne on vocals. The result is the best-sounding album Cockburn has ever made, with his compact, intricate guitar figures framed by satisfying harmonies and lean but vigorous rhythms.

Unfortunately, Cockburn's songwriting is less consistent than it has been in the past. "A Dream Like Mine" and "Child of the Wind" drift away into new age, good vibes vagueness, and "Kit Carson" and "Indian Wars" lapse into politically correct overkill. Nonetheless, there are still a handful of songs that illustrate why Cockburn was one of the finest songwriters of the '80s. "Great Big Love" and "Somebody Touched Me" are the most convincing love songs he's ever come up with, for the melodies are as infectiously joyful as the clever metaphors.Best of all is "Cry of a Tiny Babe," which recasts the Christmas story as a democratic parable. Over a mesmerizing, circular guitar figure and organ swells, Cockburn sings about the sexual politics and biological reality of Mary's pregnancy, and the "death squads" sent by King Herod, and concludes: "It isn't to the palace that the Christ Child comes, but to the shepherds and street people, hookers and bums."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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