Reinventions rarely come as thorough and effective as Achtung Baby, an album that completely changed U2's sound and style. The crashing, unrecognizable distorted guitars that open "Zoo Station" are a clear signal that U2 have traded their Americana pretensions for postmodern, contemporary European music. Drawing equally from Bowie's electronic avant-garde explorations of the late '70s and the neo-psychedelic sounds of the thriving rave and Madchester club scenes of early-'90s England, Achtung Baby sounds vibrant and endlessly inventive. Unlike their inspirations, U2 rarely experiment with song structures over the course of the album. Instead, they use the thick dance beats, swirling guitars, layers of effects, and found sounds to break traditional songs out of their constraints, revealing the tortured emotional core of their songs with the hyper-loaded arrangements. In such a dense musical setting, it isn't surprising that U2 have abandoned the political for the personal on Achtung Baby, since the music, even with its inviting rhythms, is more introspective than anthemic. Bono has never been as emotionally naked as he is on Achtung Baby, creating a feverish nightmare of broken hearts and desperate loneliness; unlike other U2 albums, it's filled with sexual imagery, much of it quite disturbing, and it ends on a disquieting note. Few bands this far into their careers have recorded an album as adventurous or fulfilled their ambitions quite as successfully as U2 do on Achtung Baby, and the result is arguably their best album.
For the 20th birthday of Achtung Baby, U2 went all out and released no less than five anniversary editions: a single-disc remaster, a double-disc Deluxe Edition, a vinyl box set, a six-CD/four-DVD Super Deluxe Edition, and finally an Uber Deluxe Edition that takes the Super Deluxe Edition and adds various tchotchkes like a magnetic puzzle, badges, stickers, and a replica of Bono's Fly sunglasses. Only those with deep wallets will need to concern themselves with the Uber edition -- most fans will debate between the Deluxe double-disc set and the Super Deluxe set. The Deluxe Edition contains only the album's non-LP cuts -- primarily B-sides and bonus tracks, plus the unreleased outtake "Blow Your House Down." Although the assorted covers on this collection are a bit dodgy -- U2 have never sounded as uncertain as they do on a Euro-disco cover of CCR's "Fortunate Son" -- the originals are by and large very good, particularly "Lady with the Spinning Head," "Blow Your House Down," and "Salome." The Super Deluxe Edition adds the 1993 album Zooropa, written and recorded during the supporting Zoo tours for Achtung Baby, then two discs of remixes, the B-sides discs that pop up on the Deluxe Edition, and, finally, a fledgling version of Achtung Baby called Kindergarten, which contains nascent versions of all 12 songs from the finished album.
Some of the remixes sound like little more than historical curios, but a surprising amount are either vigorous or imaginative and they all underscore how Achtung Baby truly was the first U2 album that could lend itself to these kind of mixes. And if the Kindergarten version of Achtung Baby has few real revelations -- most of the differences lay in Bono's lyrics; many of the cuts are incomplete mixes instead of demos -- it nevertheless is a fascinating listen for those who know the album by heart. Finally, there are four DVDs: a making-of documentary by David Guggenheim, director of the Edge-starring guitar doc It Might Get Loud, called From the Sky Down; a disc of videos from Achtung Baby and Zooropa; a disc of odds and ends from these years, including a Zoo TV Special, MTV shorts, and appearances on Naked City and TV-AM, plus ROM content; and, to round out the package, the Zoo TV Live from Sydney disc. Whether this is overkill is completely in the eye of the consumer: surely, it's possible to enjoy just the simple single disc of Achtung Baby, but for those who want to live within the world U2 created in the early '90s -- and it surely was its own world, driven by its own sounds and styles -- the Super Deluxe Edition will be hard to resist.