New book on U2′s Achtung Baby (33 1/3 series)

Posted on Sun Oct 14 2007 at 4:54 pm in the category 1990s, Music and religion, Reviews of books on music, U2 -- Copyright notice

I have been a U2 fan for a good number of years (since about 1983), so I was interested to hear that a book was coming out about the ground-breaking Achtung Baby (1991). I’m also a student of the history of religion, as well as religion and popular culture, so I wasn’t turned off by the notion of looking at religious themes in this album, which does indeed have some of those.

So I requested and received a review copy of Stephen Catanzarite’s Achtung Baby: Meditations on Love in the Shadow of the Fall (New York: Continuum, 2007). This book is part of a larger series of album-focussed books known as 33 1/3. You can read more about this series on the 33 1/3 blog here. Catanzarite approaches the album track by track, delving into the human relations and religious themes he sees reflected in the music. As he proceeds, he creates fictional narratives, stories about human relationships, that he sees as reflecting a message communicated to him from the tracks on U2′s album. His central argument is that Achtung Baby is a many-faceted reflection on the condition of “fallen” humanity (fallen in the Adam and Eve sense).

I have mixed reactions to this book. On the one hand, this is a well-written piece and there are some insightful observations regarding the lyrical and musical aspects of this experimental album by U2. There are times when Catanzarite describes the musicality and instrumentation of Achtung Baby in an eloquent (if somewhat overstated) way:

“The melodies throughout are simply stunning — and stunningly simple — but cast against, around, and on top of complex arrangements overflowing with guttural howls, jarring chimes, trashy beats, and sheets of decadent noise. The guitar riffs, masterfully rendered and brilliantly layered, and also regularly and deliciously off-kilter. The bass lines are solid but frayed, made all the more engaging by their Anglified funkiness. The beats are straightforward and harsh here, tasteful and restrained there. . . And then there are the voices. The passion and elegance, beauty and grace, desperation and longing, lust and regret, truth and confusion communicated in each and every note vocalized on Achtung Baby prove two important things about music. First, no instrument is more potent or versatile than the human voice. Second, you don’t always have to sing on key to make music of enduring beauty and relevance” (p. 5).

The strengths of the book lie in its lively writing style and in Catanzarite’s ability to offer some interesting insights like these. The final chapter of the book also delves into more of what I would have expected from a book of this type, as Catanzarite discusses the cultural context and influence of the album. More of this cultural analysis, rather than (or at least alongside of) theological reflection, would have strengthened the book, in my view.

There are times when Catanzarite’s own admittedly impressionistic take on Achtung Baby rings true to me (and potentially other listeners), as when he describes “One” as “a love song that reaches beyond romance, a kind of post-modern blues ballad that rises swiftly and powerfully above the banal” (p. 18). He then goes on to a very intriguing and, to me at least, accurate description of the “sonic elements” of this track which match with this overall theme that he identifies.

In some cases, Catanzarite’s tendency to think of religious themes actually does work. In particular, he is on solid ground (and not floating around in heaven somewhere) in identifying religious themes when he explores “Until the End of the World”. After all, this song is, expressly, Judas’ perspective on Jesus’ whole obsession (in Judas view) with the coming end — lighten up, Jesus! It is certainly not far-fetched when we hear Catanzarite stating that the “fuming riff of a panoramic guitar reveals the landscape of damnation” (p. 30) now faced by Judas as he reflects back on what he has done. And in some of the performances of this tune at concerts, Bono (as Judas) takes on the role of Satan himself in the final battle between good (Edge representing God with a sword-like guitar) and evil. Ancient combat myth meets rock and roll.

However, it is the very narrow and specific manner of interpreting Achtung Baby within a religious context that I find, well, restrictive and limiting. I do agree that art is about the viewer’s or listener’s take on things, and that what one person sees or feels, another will not. Nonetheless, this book can be too focussed on one person’s religious take on the album (and less so on the album itself), which makes it hard to identify with it if you do not hold its religious perspectives or presuppositions (namely Christian and, more specifically, modern Catholic). (Particularly problematic for me, for example, were Catanzarite’s a-matter-of-fact statements regarding gender and the “mystery of womanhood”, which reflect a particular modern, though traditional, Catholic perspective on the supposed inherent differences between the sexes). The concept of the entire book is that Achtung Baby represents U2′s (or at least Catanzarite’s) take on the fallen condition of humankind, and Catanzarite frequently quotes from religious writers, including recent popes.

It should be stated that Catanzarite does not do this theologizing by subterfuge. Rather, he opens the work by stating that he will approach things from a religious (Catholic) perspective, and, as he states explicitly, “I have superimposed my own particular narrative over the songs on Achtung Baby” (p.96). This focus on a particular mode of religious interpretation together with the accompanying novelistic tendencies sometimes left me behind and I found it hard to identify with Catanzarite’s take on the album. It’s not that I believe there is a true meaning that everyone must find in Achtung Baby, but there are ways of describing our own individual takes that may be less specific or self-contained, and more in touch with the variety of other takes that are possible in listening to an album like U2′s Achtung Baby. There’s more than religion in Achtung Baby, baby.

UPDATE: Over on the @U2 site, there is another review of the book, as well as an interview with Catanzarite.

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One Response to “New book on U2′s Achtung Baby (33 1/3 series)”

  1. Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses « U2008 Says:

    [...] Achtung Baby shouldn’t be regarded as having a clear narrative (it leads to situations like the 33 1/3 book, whose author somehow conludes that the album is about the Fall of Man in Genesis. It’s a new [...]