Creativity and commerce have always had a touchy relationship. During the frustratingly infrequent occasions when they do get along, everything seems to make a little more sense. But there are only a handful of times when the biggest musical act in the world is functioning at the peak of its artistic powers: The Beatles did it in the mid-’60s, Stevie Wonder in the ’70s, and Beyoncé in the last few years.
U2 managed it in the early ’90s, and the Irish quartet’s case is a strange one. By the end of the ’80s, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr. had already experienced massive success and backlash, with 1987’s The Joshua Tree delivering them to every radio dial in the universe and 1988’s bloated Rattle and Hum exposing the limitations of their ambition. Perhaps as a form of self-preservation, they abandoned their ongoing fascination with America for an unorthodox next move: descending into the after-hours discothèques of post-Berlin-Wall Europe and embracing rock-star decadence. New double-vinyl reissues of 1991’s Achtung Baby and 1993’s Zooropa sum up this fruitful, eccentric period; they’re accompanied by a 1998 greatest-hits collection, The Best of 1980-1990, which puts a cap on the era that led up to it.
It’s hard to imagine what a shock Achtung Baby must have been to U2’s mainstream audience—here was a clanging, ultra-modern rock record informed by industrial and dance music. Gone were the Edge’s chiming, canyonesque guitars in favor of blaring blots of noise; Mullen’s martially precise drumbeats had Hulked out into ironwork dance grooves; Bono’s unmistakable heldentenor forwent earnest lyrics about politics and Jesus, opting instead to purr and groan about sex.
But while it’s probably impossible to hear massive hits like “One” and “Mysterious Ways” with fresh ears, the new vinyl reissue emphasizes the thick momentum of the group’s newfound sound. Achtung Baby stands as U2’s most unimpeachable work, with zero weak tracks and a dark, Dionysian vibe that’s seductive and soulful. The album’s deep cuts might be the best ones: “So Cruel” and “Ultraviolet (Light My Way)” tingle with the fervor and fire of U2’s fantastic early work, even as they glisten with nocturnal debauchery.
Twenty months later, they delivered Zooropa, which began life as a throwaway EP and blossomed into U2’s wildest album. This was during their never-ending “Zoo TV” tour, which was based around a globe-spanning theme of satellite TV and information overload. The massive undertaking both inspired and bruised the band; Bono started to cope by wearing devil horns onstage. He sings Zooropa’s “Lemon” in a screeching falsetto, the Edge mumbles the monotone “Numb,” and Johnny Cash takes over the mic for the space-lounge bounce of closing track “The Wanderer.” But for all its weird novelties, Zooropa remains a sensational, invigorating listen.
“Daddy’s Gonna Pay for Your Crashed Car” is Zooropa’s masterstroke. Beginning with an Eastern Bloc military fanfare before launching into an apocalypse-furnace drumbeat, Bono’s voice flutters and distorts before your ears, seeming to come from inside your head for certain lines, and broadcasting from a distant planet for others. The lyrics are about a poor little rich girl, but they could just as easily be about the singer’s self-disgust and his need for a higher power to ease the burden of sin. “Daddy won’t let you weep/Daddy won’t let you ache/Daddy gives you as much as you can take,” Bono sputters.
“Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” is disguised as a big, soaring ballad in the spirit of classic U2, but it’s much more than that: A world-weary, last-call lament, it’s a better song than “One” and the emotional high point of the band’s long, dark journey into night. Zooropa is evidence of U2’s massive inventiveness, even as their spirits were being crushed under the pressure of being the biggest band in the world. They would never sound quite so curious again.
Another new vinyl release, the 16-track The Best of 1980-1990, is a glancing overview of U2’s metastasis from scrappy post-punk upstarts to stadium-sized megalodons. It’s heavy on the obvious hits, with four songs apiece from The Joshua Tree and Rattle and Hum. It’s a shame more space wasn’t devoted to their first three exceptional albums—1980’s Boy, 1981’s October, and 1983’s War—or to any of their early non-album singles and B-sides, which are ripe for rediscovery.
But hearing formative hits like “I Will Follow” and “New Year’s Day” in this setting is a reminder of how good U2 were from the start, and why they were so perfectly positioned for massive success. The title track from 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire could be the compilation’s greatest surprise for newcomers; rarely heard on American radio, the song is a powerhouse with symphonic pomp, avant-garde flourishes, and melodic urgency. The rest of 1980-1990 only leaves the listener hungry for a proper overview of U2’s early-’80s prime.
The new pressings aren’t flawless. My copy of Achtung Baby arrived with a small dish-warp, although it sounds stunning. And The Best of 1980-1990 has continual surface noise, audible in between tracks and during quieter songs like “October.”
But the mastering is excellent across the board: Achtung Baby and Zooropa, which are built on busy, claustrophobic sound, are provided a massive soundstage to roam, and they sound infinitely more airy and dynamic than the CDs most people heard in the ’90s. And Adam Clayton’s bass is thrillingly massive, particularly during “Mysterious Ways” and Zooropa’s “Some Days Are Better Than Others.”