U2's 'Achtung Baby' sounds magnificent without shaking the world

As anyone who follows the band knows, U2 has always had a flair for the dramatic. Indeed, its ability to tap rock's sense of urgency and excitement has been obvious ever since the first clarion chords of "I Will Follow" reverberated across American radio waves in 1980.

So it should come as no surprise to learn that U2's latest album, "Achtung Baby" (Island 314-510 347, arriving in record stores today), also makes a magnificent noise. In fact, the sounds packed into its 12 songs range from the awesome to the astonishing; even after multiple hearings, the listener will still notice new sounds working their way through the aural underbrush.


All of which makes "Achtung Baby" an exciting album. Whether it counts as a great one, however, depends upon how much you expect U2 to have to say.

This, after all, is not just any pop band. Ever since its third album, when it took on the issue of English colonialism in the stirring, anthemic "Sunday Bloody Sunday," U2 has taken the moral high ground in its music, issuing albums that have seemed less like song collections than musical manifestoes. If ever a group seemed interested in illuminating rock culture's "big picture," this was the one.


Anyone looking to "Achtung Baby" for enlightenment, however, is in for a disappointment. Instead of grand statements and political pronunciamentos, the lyrics here focus on private meditations and affairs of the heart. One song, "Tryin' to Throw Your Arms Around the World," even goes so far as to mock the whole we-can-save-the-world aesthetic, complaining that it's an impediment to romance.

Some will probably take this as a sign that the band is retrenching, taking a more personal perspective on the world in response to unexpected changes in the political landscape. And I have no doubt that a close reading of the lyric sheet would support that argument -- or any number of similar theories.

But anyone who tries to understand this album from its lyric sheet is missing the point, for unlike the band's last few albums, "Achtung Baby" does not deal in "message music." What this album trades on is the inarticulate power of musical emotion, and that's something that must be heard to be understood.

It takes dozens of words, for example, for the lyrics of "Mysterious Ways" to articulate its sense of inscrutable femininity, but barely two bars for the drums and guitar to sketch the ways in which this woman moves. Likewise, the three-note piano hook that sets up "So Cruel" says as much about its protagonist's emotional disarray than anything in the verses -- particularly when it's melodic melancholy is set against a soaring chorus and insistent, hip-hop pulse.

That's not to say the lyrics should be entirely ignored, for some are as vividly evocative as the music they adorn. "So Cruel," for instance, finds Bono observing that his lady "wears my love/ Like a see-through dress" -- a metaphor as devastating as it is evocative.

Even so, Bono's delivery often says more than the words. Just listen to the way his conspiratorial whisper inflames each verse of the "The Fly," or the way his sonorous intonation keeps the metaphors in "Who's Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses" from crumbling into cliche.

But then, sound really is the bottom line here, and in many ways the most impressive thing about "Achtung Baby" isn't its melodic imagination (which is considerable) or rhythmic intensity (which is irresistible), but its ingenious production (by Daniel Lanois with Brian Eno). It isn't just a matter of acoustic detail, either; what really astonishes is the way the album's sense of texture helps push the music along, from the cyberfunk distortion that drives "Zoo Station" to the ghostly bass pulse that reverberates beneath "Love Is Blindness."

Granted, such touches aren't likely to change the world, or even your perspective on it. But it is enough to make "Achtung Baby" a thoroughly addictive album -- and frankly, that's more than enough for me.