Critical reaction to Achtung Baby was significantly positive. Here’s a sample of what media reviewers had to say in the days and weeks after the album’s release.
Niall Stokes, Hot Press
In many ways it is the bleakest U2 album but it also contains some of their most obvious singles — pop songs which are deceptively accessible while dealing in harrowing emotions, the illusion of something throwaway masking the search for a deeper truth. Achtung Baby at once evokes the spirit of T. Rex and Scott Walker, the Beatles and the Stones, Bob Marley, Al Green and Leonard Cohen. It is trashy, ambitious, subversive and profound. It sounds less like the U2 that we know than anything they have done before and yet it is unmistakably them, their signature indelibly inscribed into the grooves, from the Edge’s first guitar colourings on the opening track onwards.
Elysa Gardner, Rolling Stone (full review)
At their worst … well, the half-live double album Rattle and Hum (1988) — the product of U2’s self-conscious infatuation with American roots music — wasn’t a full-out disaster, but it was misguided and bombastic enough to warrant concern. With Achtung Baby, U2 is once again trying to broaden its musical palette, but this time its ambitions are realized. Working with producers who have lent discipline and nuance to the group’s previous albums — Daniel Lanois oversees the entire album, with Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite assisting on a number of songs — U2 sets out to experiment rather than pay homage. In doing so, the band is able to draw confidently and consistently on its own native strengths.
Jon Pareles, New York Times (full review)
Such overheated stuff is made for music, however, if that music doesn’t simply make the drama insufferable. The revamped U2 isn’t trapped in sophomoric seriousness because it’s no longer so sure of itself. Instead of turning every Bono pronouncement into a would-be anthem, the band keeps the lyrics terse as it claws and scrabbles above the beat. The Edge’s feedback and distortion and Larry Mullen’s basslines grapple with the vocals, the musical id battling the verbal ego in a way that enacts the words instead of accompanying them. Stripped-down and defying its old formulas, U2 has given itself a fighting chance for the 1990’s.
Robert Hilburn, Los Angeles Times
While the arty, guitar-driven textures are among the band’s most confident and vigorous ever, Bono’s lyrics are introspective and self-questioning. He may have expressed disillusionment and doubts on earlier albums, but the overall message was always uplifting, suggesting a sense of destiny and hope.
It was rock on a grand scale, and the music established U2 in the ’80s as the first band in years to offer the ambition, craft and leadership that characterized the Beatles, the Who and other great rock bands of the ’60s.
After achieving massive popularity and acclaim for those tales of light, U2 now tries to touch us with examinations of the darkness.
It’s a daring move because U2’s appeal was due in part to its being one of the few contemporary voices in mainstream rock that could speak about inspirational matters with the eloquence and insight of the Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison tradition. Moving into the more populated rock world of desolate or disheartened souls, the band loses some of its individuality.
Jay Cocks, TIME
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.
Steve Morse, Boston Globe (full review)
The new Achtung Baby follows the lead of the album’s first single, “The Fly,” meaning there’s a heavier, more industrial sound to the band, vs. the gauzily atmospheric, almost spiritually New Age sound of parts of Joshua Tree. U2 could have played it safe, but they chose to experiment. If there’s such a thing as a hybrid between ’90s industrial music and ’60s psychedelic music, this is it. Clanging, knob-twisting sound effects run through the record, as does the metallic, head-snapping guitar of David (The Edge) Evans, who has never shone this brilliantly.
These sonic assaults are teamed with dreamily processed vocals that recall Beatles psychedelia on the album’s opening track, “Zoo Station” (with singer Bono kidding that “I’m ready for laughing gas”); and even some classic Rolling Stones rock in “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” with a chorus adapted from the Stones’ “Out of Time.”
This points up another strength of the album. U2 are no longer as explosively creative as they were on early albums such as War and October, when they were new wave rock avatars. But they’ve taken some of that youthfully spontaneous creativity and matched it with a deeper sense of rock history. They deserve their cross-generational audience, which should only increase with this new effort.
Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune
Although the subject of love — between God and man, countrymen, races, creeds, nationalities — has been an important subtext for every U2 album, on Achtung Baby it is framed exclusively in terms of an adult relationship.
It’s rare enough for women to be treated in rock songs as anything other than objects of lust or abuse, but Bono not only addresses his love as an equal, he tries — and inevitably fails — to fathom her mystery.
That doomed romantic quest is what most of these songs seem to be about, and they present Bono at his most vulnerable and personal. Rather than trying to speak for his generation, here he is speaking his heart.
Ben Thompson, The Independent (UK)
Despite its awful title, Achtung Baby is in many ways an admirable record. Surprisingly introverted and complex, and with little of the usual flag-waving, it is also strangely tuneful. Bono’s singing is at times almost subtle, and the Edge even turns off the chime button of his guitar once or twice. The lyrics are still a Bono of contention, but at least there are no songs about walls being broken down. To their credit, U2 have never been afraid to risk losing fans, whether by telling American audiences that Noraid was not a good thing or by making a dense and initially impenetrable record like this one.
Jill Graham, New Zealand Herald
For whatever reason — and there will be many, many theories — this is not the U2 of old. In fact, this album is really pretty damn good. Especially its middle section containing the ballad “So Cruel,” “The Fly,” “Mysterious Ways” and “Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World.” Too many downbeat moments where songs seem to be going nowhere prevent Achtung Baby from being a truly wondrous affair, but it’s not half bad. Actually, it’s more than half good.
Roger Catlin, Hartford Courant
By doing away with expectations to either sound like itself or be righteous, which was long its code, U2 has opened itself up to a world of new and sonically updated music.
The band’s aim — from the metallic arpeggio that begins the album to the raw, stark sound of Bono on the vocals — is to challenge their legions of fans. Although the band retains the usually pristine and atmospheric production of Daniel Lanois, the sound absolutely crackles with a revitalized, post-industrial buzz, with experimental vocals, generally big drum sounds and startling electric guitar riffs slicing through the stormy din. At the core of the tunes are the Edge’s melodic, ringing chords and Bono’s impassioned vocals, making it all unmistakable U2.
Bill Wyman, Entertainment Weekly (full review)
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.