The Wikipedia article on Achtung Baby is illuminating in unexpected and glum ways. For a start, the demands of Wiki-style are never kind to projects which centre on ambiguity and every last bit of knowingness gets flatly ironed out. But more, the behind-the-scenes material – a boil-down of dozens of books, articles, and retrospectives – suggests what a ghastly and drawn-out process Not Being U2 was for U2. (My favourite factoid: how one proposed album title was Man – as opposed to Boy, you understand – before someone noticed this would squarely poleaxe the whole ‘not pompous any more’ look)
This points to one of the big questions about New U2 – the extent to which this music was impressive, or just impressive because of who was making it. When we watch a film about an ex-con, for instance, we often cheer them on when they reject a life of crime or violence while expecting the drama to hinge on their return to it. In our everyday lives, of course, we don’t find it much of a struggle not to commit armed robbery. Similarly, many bands find it surprisingly easy not to make tedious and overblown rock records, so how much of the interest in U2’s early 90s material comes from them fighting these deadly urges, rather than the fact (or otherwise) of their success?
“The Fly” seems designed to state these changed priorities as clearly as possible. Everything you identify with 90s U2 – the elliptical lyrics, the attempts at funkiness, Bono getting his Bowie on and trying out different characters – is here in force, and for me the later Achtung Baby singles had nothing like the impact this did. Of course, this one had the good fortune to break Bryan Adams’ geological span at number one – after sixteen plays of “Everything I Do” I can report that “The Fly” sounds bloody amazing, and I felt similar goodwill towards Bono at the time.
But even free of context “The Fly” is a good record, as contemporary and striking as it needed to be. It’s built on a loose, loping rhythm which makes the song a harsher cousin of 1990’s ‘Madchester’ sound, with the breezy wah-wahs of the Farm or the Happy Mondays replaced by crunching, churning guitar work. If The Edge has a good comeback, Bono isn’t quite so convincing: his aphorisms set a mood well without adding up to much, and “the sheer face of love” is a fine image, but for all that the song needs it I can never enjoy his falsetto, and there’s still a few of his rock-singer-isms (“…chiiiild”) hanging around to sour the modernist milk.
At a safe distance, what intrigues me about U2’s reinvention is how little actually changed. The group were desperate to throw off their ties to a specific past, and fled into the comforting arms of another one – decamping to Hansa Studios was simply swapping a romantic America for a romantic Europe. And the elements the group played up on Achtung Baby – their theatricality, their love of texture – were always there: Rattle And Hum was a performance of a style as much as the Zoo TV material was, the heat-haze guitar on The Joshua Tree as evocative and alien as any of the electronic sound on Achtung Baby.
From this perspective choosing between Old U2 and New U2 was simply a question of working out whether Nine Inch Nails were a healthier influence for a rock band in 1991 than John Lee Hooker. But something else had shifted. U2 remained, as they always remained, an heavy-handed bunch. This was the secret of their success – in the Joshua Tree days their sincerity and scale bludgeoned you, needing no interpretation. But now they shifted their weight from content to context – they were just as heavy-handed, but about their artifice not just their art. They now hammered you with ‘postmodernism’, and in doing so helped make this thumping knowingness a signature of their times.