With the one-two punch of their 1987 multiplatinum album The Joshua Tree and 1988's Rattle and Hum, U2 parlayed college-radio respect into a reverent cult, and thence into superduperstardom. Along the way, the four Irishmen participated in the popular '80s celebrity sport of thoroughly making themselves over. R.E.M., another alternative band that made it big, is essentially the same shaggy bunch of college-town slackers they were 10 years ago, but the change in U2 and especially in the group's lead singer, Bono has been pronounced: The angry young (and outspokenly Christian) man of the band's beginnings grew up in public, mellowing over the years. By now he's a magnanimous spiritual seeker, rock's leading charismatic-without- portfolio.
The band's music, meanwhile, followed a similarly winding upward path, mutating from an edgy, headlong assault into moody, slowed-down grandeur. But if The Joshua Tree was a big, arena-size record and Rattle and Hum an overblown movie souvenir, Achtung Baby is thankfully downsized. Recorded in Dublin and the tumult of reunified Berlin with the band's longtime collaborators Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, the album is refreshingly personal deeper and denser than any of the band's previous releases and a musical consolidation as well.
Achtung Baby's building blocks are monstrous guitar noises, ethereal atmospherics, and electronic vocal distortions, some of them downright creepy. On the first song, ''Zoo Station,'' Bono's manipulated voice evokes a bank robber with a stocking over his face; on the last, ''Love Is Blindness,'' you'd swear guitarist the Edge is playing a dentist's drill. The production doesn't always work: The first single, ''The Fly,'' rocks out but goes overboard with the psychedelic foofooraw, and ''Acrobat'' formless and overwrought is just a mess. But show me a record that combines Achtung's sonic clarity with its authoritative musical muscle, and I'll show you The Joshua Tree.
Still, Achtung Baby's human palette is broader, from the typically biting but unprecedently emotional ''One'' ''I can't be holding on/To what you got/ When all you got is hurt'' to the chaos-in-the-new-Europe visions of songs like ''Zoo Station'' and ''The Fly.'' Bono's jut-jawed attitudinizing was getting tiresome by the end of the Joshua Tree-Rattle and Hum era; today he's less strident, and he and the band are displaying a new interest in the politics of love. This isn't always attractive (Bono the lover can sound nasty). More often, however, the natural warmth of his strivings for unity and love as on ''Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World'' pulls him through. The extravagant stylings and wild emotings of ''One'' put it among Bono's most dramatic moments on record. And then there's ''Ultra Violet (Light My Way),'' where Bono's soaring voice and the Edge's pointillistic guitar meld to create one of those uplifting moments we listen to U2 for. It's the standout performance on a pristinely produced and surprisingly unpretentious return by one of the most impressive bands in the world. A