U2’s “Achtung Baby”

Album Cover for U2's "Achtung Baby"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s album “Achtung Baby” from 1991. I grew up loving their album “The Joshua Tree” that came out when I was 10 years old. When “Achtung Baby” appeared during my freshman year of high school, it didn’t catch my attention. I did like the second single “Mysterious Ways” with its strong guitar riff and trippy music video, though. My tastes were heading towards more moody and less mainstream interests than U2. It’s a shame, because this is a very good album. Maybe I just wasn’t ready yet.

On this album, I hear a band with established techniques and skills fighting against repeating themselves. There’s a good bit of experimentation with sound and techniques, as if they are determined to not make another “Joshua Tree.” The Edge’s use of delay, while prominent all over that previous album, is more subtle and much less frequent. The drums have taken on a more dance feel; Upcoming artists like Jesus Jones, The Escape Club, and EMF already leading this trend. Many predicted this combination of break-beat rhythms with guitar rock would become the 90s alt-rock sound, until Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” flooded the airwaves.

Zoo Station

The opener “Zoo Station” start with 3 seconds of quiet background noise and then odd bursts of distorted guitar. This is the announcement that the listener is in for a different U2 album. The bass and drums groove along with a determined driving beat. A tinny snare drum cracks every 2nd the 4th beat, sounding a little trashy. A minimal chord progression contributes to the pending sense of urgency, mostly staying in the tonic with use of the flattened VII and IV to push it forward. “Zoo Station” feels as much like a journey into the album as a destination of its own. The lyrics, which read more a statement of intent, support this:

I’m ready
I’m ready for the gridlock
I’m ready
To take it to the street
I’m ready for the shuffle
Ready for the deal
Ready to let go of the steering wheel
I’m ready
Ready for the crush.

The Fly

The seventh track, and first single, “The Fly” escaped my notice until this week. While not experimental music, this seems to be one of the more experimental tracks on the album. It has the benefit of feeling more uncharted territory for the band, and therefore has a looser, even sloppy, feel. That’s even with the steady dance beat. My son aptly pointed out the resemblance to one of my favorite bands, INXS. It especially reminds me of “Communication,” which INXS started recording just after “Achtung Baby” was released.

The drums continue a dance-beat throughout almost like clockwork, along with the pulsing driving bassline. They keep the song song grounded while the rest seems to scatter here. The guitar starts with a repetitive riff until Bono begins his chorused and heavily-compressed softly spoken vocals. The echoey, slightly flanged, distorted guitar pulls back and then punches back with seemingly random stabs, scrapes, scratches and slides. The lyrics are a bit of a paranoid cautionary ramble. More like a nightmarish stream-of-consciousness with an apparent illusion of meaning, tangents off the chorus’s couplet: “A fly on the wall, it’s not secret at all.”

It’s no secret that the stars are falling from the sky
It’s no secret that our world is in darkness tonight
They say the sun is sometimes eclipsed by the moon
You know I don’t see you when she walks in the room
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
So I’m telling you, child

One

Just after high school, I was in an emotional relationship; a strong mix of love and hurt between two people who had both to give, certainly some type of codependency. In U2’s song “One” I found a sort-of comfort in hearing words from another that described so well what we had. When in the car with my next girlfriend, this song came on the radio and I mentioned that. She said it was also the song for one of her previous relationship.

What Bono has done with these lyrics is described a commonly set of emotions in a way that many can relate and apply to their own situation. The narrative details of the couple and the events in their lives are completely missing, the actual story is a vast ambiguous cloud waiting for the listener to fill it in. Even their genders are absent. Instead, he reserves his use of detail for the visual imagery for the emotions.

He also combines this with religious allusions, in the third verse, to describe how the other brings their own hurt and needs to the relationship. This verse is tied to the bridge, where the other talks of love as a temple. Despite their praise of the sanctity of love, their own hurt means that loving them is more of a sacrifice than a blessing.

Have you come here for forgiveness?
Have you come to raise the dead?
Have you come here to play Jesus
To the lepers in your head?
[…]
You say love is a temple, love a higher law
Love is a temple, love the higher law
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt

U2’s “Joshua Tree”

Album cover for U2's "Joshua Tree"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s amazing fifth album “The Joshua Tree” from 1987. My parents bought a copy of this CD soon after it came out. That means I undoubtedly heard and listened to it many times when I was ten years old.

My opinion on some albums have come and gone as I’ve progressed through different stages of my life. I always loved “The Joshua Tree” no matter what my tastes were at the time. It’s a great album for listening. For a musician and songwriter, it provides rich and exciting possibilities for sound within the context of a rock song. They’ve managed to naturally find a brilliantly glowing spot between the genre’s of post-punk, pop, and rock here; I still think of this as their most perfect album.

The Edge’s Use of Delay Effects

A musician, especially a guitarist, would find it impossible to talk about this album without mentioning The Edge’s use of delay. Les Paul’s guitar in “How High the Moon” features one of the earliest uses of delay created using tape. Pink Floyd, especially guitar David Gilmour, made frequent use of delays synched to the tempo of the song. This can be heard on the bass in “One Of These Days” from 1971 or the guitar in “Run Like Hell” from 1979. In most cases, Pink Floyd’s delays were either synched to the 1/8th note or a triplets, that’s 1/3 of a 1/4 note, with several repeats.

There is a great study of The Edge’s use of Delay at amnesta.net. To summarize, The Edge frequently syncs the delay to dotted 1/8 (aka 3/16) or 1/8, and isn’t afraid to have several repeats to create depth of space and rhythmic textures. Without the delay, these are still good guitar riffs, but so much simpler than what we’re hearing on the album. I made great use of 3/16 and 5/16 tempo-synced delays in my electronic music over the past 10 years, directly inspired by The Edge. I love the sound of this album, especially the guitar.

Where the Streets Have No Name

The album opens with atmospheric synth pads fading in, morphing into the sound of an organ playing chords. These tones fold into each other. Then, The Edge’s clean electric guitar with tempo-synched delay creates a fractal-like driving texture. Bass guitar rolls in, filling the bottom layer. Drums begin to beat as the guitar grows in scratchy urgency. The song feels like a stadium, even within the studio. It’s an epic, driving, pulsating sound: full of atmosphere and determination. There’s a sense that this song MUST be performed.

The verses hold on to the tonic chord for several lines, to drop down to a IV, to pull up to vi, to V. From this V, the chorus jumps to a flattened VII, which feels like a modest key change, then to IV, which would be the V if the chorus was in a different key. Then we’re back to the vi. We’re still in the original key. That is the key of D, which coincidentally is the key of Irish bagpipes which play a continual drone. I may making too many assumptions, but U2’s Irish roots may’ve had some subtle influence here.

These first person lyrics describe a desire to escape a vague current situation. There’s a hint of a love falling apart, mixed with disappointment with effects of industrialization. The song makes use of anaphora, which is the repetition of a short phrase at the beginning of each line. When this device is used in speeches, it provides a verbal from of bullet points. It adds an immediate sense of structure to lyrics, giving the listener something to grab unto. In addition to the repetition of “I want to”, three of the four verse stanzas in the song have the titular refrain “Where the streets have no name.” This six word phrase also gets repeated twice at the start of the chorus. Furthermore, each stanza follows an AABB rhyme scheme.

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name.

Bullet the Blue Sky

“Bullet the Blue Sky” has long been one of my most favorite songs. The drums and bass guitar drive along repeating a menacing pattern. The bass repeats the same two bar pattern throughout. This forms the bed of the song. Overdriven guitar noises and feedback fill the background with large reverb, providing a sinister atmosphere. Much of these noises seem to be created by shaking the guitar, scratching the strings, spinning a tremolo bar, trembling a slide without actually playing notes, etc. I absolutely love these noises.

The song pretty much stays in the major tonic chord throughout. The last 1/8 note of each measure, drops to the major seventh to provide movement. During the spoken bridge in the middle of the song, the chord drops to the minor tonic. Here, U2 uses the major third instead of the major seventh at the end of each measure. The bass lines stays the same.

In God’s Country

“In God’s Country” sits near the middle of the album. It sounds fantastic and the lyrics and melody are particularly catchy. However, this song took some years to grow on me. Though the song is unique, I don’t think it stands out enough from the rest of the album. By the time we’ve heard the six songs that precede it, it can sound like a less creative version of more of the same.

The song opens with chords played on a jangly light acoustic guitar; I believe this may have a very tight stereo delay, or a stereo chorus (which is really just a modulated delay). This spreads the guitar across the stereo field. An clean electric guitar, again with delay, lightly picks single muted notes. This somewhat suggests a xylophone. When the bass and drums come in, the guitar becomes overdriven and plays high chords echoing across the stereo field with delay. For this song, there are two delays on the main electric guitar: one synched to 1/8 note, the other to a dotted 1/8 note. Throughout the song, The Edge builds picking patterns into this delay that fill the space with rhythmic intensity. At times, this becomes an overwhelming mix of swirling repeating plucks and soaring sonic leads.

The lyrics in this song also make use of repetition. Each verse consists of two stanzas. With the first verse, the first two lines of each stanzas are very similar. The “Desert sky” of the first stanza is like the “Desert rose” of the second. Likewise the second lines of each stanza are “Dream beneath a desert sky” and “Dreamed I saw a desert rose” respectively. This type of repetition is not repeated for the second verse. However, both verses use an AAAa/AAAB rhyme scheme. The third lines of both stanzas in the first verse do make use of internal repetition, with the word “run” in the first stanza and “in” for the second stanza. This is another technique not reused in the second verse.

Desert sky
Dream beneath a desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight

Desert rose
Dreamed I saw a desert rose
Dress torn in ribbons and in bows
Like a siren she calls to me