Happy birthday to the Achtung Baby, which as of last month is officially no longer a spring chicken. As part of the celebration of the 20th anniversary of U2’s landmark, career-saving album, Q magazine – with help form U2 themselves – put together AHK-toong BAY-bi Covered, a tribute album that features a track-by-track take by artists who know and love U2.
I want to pause just a second to thank U2 for taking care of fans with this release. Q can be difficult to find on newsstands outside of the UK, and it is my understanding that newsstand editions shipped outside Europe did not include this free CD. Early issues with the CD were already starting to fetch outrageous amounts on eBay, when U2 stepped in and made issues including the CD available all over the world at its cover price on U2.com. If that weren’t enough, the whole album and single tracks are also available on iTunes, with all proceeds going to Concern Worldwide, an Ireland-based non-profit founded in 1968 that provides both long-term and disaster relief to the poorest areas in the world. Nice work, guys.
Anyway, as with any group of covers, the results are mixed. Below you’ll find my track-by-track review. Overall, the set is smartly packaged in a CD case that faithfully recreates the original, iconic look of Achtung Baby. For a hardcore U2 fan, or for anyone who lists Achtung Baby as among their favorite albums, I would recommend buying the whole thing and making up your own mind. For those on the fence, I would suggest passing on tracks 12-6 on my list. The top 2 aren’t to be missed by anyone, ever.
12. “One” Damien Rice
I have to admit, I have only listened to the first minute or so of this song, because it managed to bore me and piss me off simultaneously. First off, I have no idea who this is, nor do I know who thought it might be a good idea for him to represent the song that saved U2. Secondly, this version sounds like something you could hear in any piano bar at midnight on a weekend. And last but not least, kid, Bono wrote this song the way he wanted it written. Feel free to sing it the way it was written and not screw around with the pronouns. Changing ‘you’ to ‘me’ and ‘we’ to ‘you’ and whatever else is distracting. Go sit down, kid. And give David Gray his sound back.
11. “Acrobat” Glasvegas
Another artist that I was not familiar with, Glasvegas doesn’t do much with “Acrobat,” the one song from Achtung Baby to have never been played live, save one ZooTV dress rehearsal. Pretty uninspiring. Move along.
10. “Even Better Than The Real Thing (Lu Cont Mix)” U2
Imagine taking a good song, gutting it of what makes it great and gives it its signature sound and replacing it with flaccid keyboards. There are good U2 remixes out there. This isn’t one of them.
9. “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World” The Fray
I guess Coldplay wasn’t available, so ... I kid, I kid. I like a couple of songs by The Fray. I just don’t care too much for this one. The loopy, trippy bass of the original that fit so well with Bono’s story of a philosopher in the midst of a hangover gets watered down here with piano and strained vocals. Not terrible, but not great either.
8. “Mysterious Ways” Snow Patrol
I have already panned one cover for being too safe, and in a moment, I am going to do it again, and likely again, but I have to give Snow Patrol credit for not taking the easy way out here. It would have been oh-so-easy to have mirrored The Edge’s unmistakable wah-wah riff in some way and called it a day, but Snow Patrol took out that riff completely. The vocals are fine and this unique take on a classic isn’t bad.
7. “Ultra Violet (Light My Way)” The Killers
If Coldplay are the new U2, then the The Killers are surely the new U2 for people who, you know, hate U2. Never afraid of bombast, this was an obvious choice by The Killers, and the results are, well, obvious. In the two decades since its release, “Ultra Violet” has become a favorite album track to many U2 fans, myself included. The Killers are known for ballsy cover choices – I wouldn’t go near the Dire Straits classic “Romeo and Juliet” – and they again prove that no cow is too sacred to scare them away. The song itself is a pretty straight-forward cover. No surprises, no frills. If you love this song, it’s worth checking out. If you like The Killers, it’s worth a listen. Otherwise, just stick to the original. Sometimes the first answer is the best answer.
6. “So Cruel” Depeche Mode
As a kid, I talked to more than one person who didn’t know the difference between U2, Depeche Mode and INXS. This cover makes it easy to see why. Like The Killers, Depeche Mode doesn’t stray to far from the original. In hindsight, “So Cruel” sounds an awfully lot like a Dephece Mode song in the first place.
5. “Until the End of the World” Patti Smith
Finally, someone takes a chance! Smith strips down ‘Until the End’ to its bare bones, crooning like a lounge lizard in stark contrast to the overload of the original. Is this song about two lovers? Jesus Christ and Judas Iscariot? Both? Neither? Smith gives ‘Until the End’ more of the lover-done-wrong reading than Bono and manages to breathe new life into what has become an overdone warhorse live.
4. “The Fly” Gavin Friday
I have to admit, I was a little disappointed when I saw that Bono’s lifelong homeboy had been given the task of covering the song that signaled the end of the earnest, predictable U2. According to The Edge, Friday, who has been described as Bono’s evil twin, took on “Zoo Station” because none of the other acts contacted to take part in the covers project wanted to touch it. Friday replaces Edge’s guitar solo – perhaps the best of his career – with a keyboard, and the melody of the chorus is delivered with layered vocals and a simple piano. There was a lot to work with here, and Friday did his friends proud.
3. “Love Is Blindness” Jack White
White injects a dose of visceral emotion into Achtung Baby’s morose, brooding final track. Never one to let his vocal limitations get in the way of venting his spleen, Jack howls about the dangers of love as only a man who just split from one of the most beautiful women in the world can.
2. “Zoo Station” Nine Inch Nails
If you were expecting a sonic wave of distortion, or what U2 biographer Bill Flanagan called ‘songs that sound like walkie-talkies in a clothes dryer,’ you would have been caught off-guard by the understated, ominous build of the album opener. Trent Reznor chose to highlight the bassline of the original for his take, and the threatening hush stands as a stark contrast to the over-the-top noise of the original. Reznor doesn’t always come to mind when thinking of the best voices in rock, but he stands toe-to-toe with Bono just fine here.
1. “Whose Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” Garbage
What could be better than hearing Shirley Manson, now in her 16th year as Hottest Woman I Have Ever Seen, sing the line ‘Who’s gonna taste your salt water kisses?’ Not much, it turns out. In recent months, Butch Vig, the studio geek producer behind Garbage, cited Achtung Baby as one of the chief influence’s on Garbage’s excellent self-titled debut from 1995. Here, the band somewhat unexpectedly strips down the choruses before amping back up to sound exactly like Garbage for the choruses. I have a couple of ideas after this song, one new, and one old. First, Garbage should play ‘Wild Horses’ on their upcoming tour in support of their forthcoming album, and Shirley, as I have said for years, should call me.