Here we all were, fretting over the parlous state of rock, and help was on the way even while we were dithering. All of a sudden there's a clutch of superb albums out there: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes' Better Days; Robbie Robertson's Storyville; Van Morrison's Hymns to the Silence. And now, to put the capper on the company, U2's dashing, demanding Achtung Baby.
This new 12-song collection, the first since the band's Rattle and Hum of 1988, has something in common with all the other good stuff currently in circulation. It has the raucous, free-for-all spirit of the Jukes; it shares the narrative ambition and sense of musical mystery of Storyville (the band collaborated with Robertson, in fact, on a tune on his first album); and it taps into the same deep Irish roots, at once weird and winsome, as does Morrison, who is a kind of godfather to all Irish rockers.
But U2 does something unique here. The band not only reasserts itself but reinvents itself too. After Rattle and Hum, there was some thought that it had overreached itself, gone a little too mainstream, got a little too big even for its own grand ambitions. Achtung Baby restores U2 to scale, and gives the band back its edge.
The album is full of major-league guitar crunching and mysterious, spacy chords. Evanescent melodies float seamlessly between songs of love, temptation, loose political parable and tight personal confession. The notes credit all songs to the band collectively -- lead singer Bono of late had taken a separate credit for lyrics -- and Achtung Baby does sound more cohesive than anything else U2 has done. Tunes like The Fly are restless, even reckless, with invention, and the band can write ravishing, slightly eerie romances like Mysterious Ways better than anyone else who can fill a stadium with cheering fans. There's a lot indeed to be cheered on Achtung Baby. And celebrated. It's a monster.