Achtung Baby is one of my all-time favorite records, which is funny because I’m not a big U2 fan. It’s not that I have a problem with Bono, who I generally find amusing and self-effacing. No, it’s more that U2’s music, mostly in the Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum years, has a grandiosity that I don’t really understand. Songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Pride (In the Name of Love)” just make me think, “Why are you telling me this? And stop yelling!”
With Achtung Baby, U2 seemed to pick up on the fact that people were starting to feel that way about them. Only a few years after Rattle & Hum, which dropped the band in the American South to sing about Martin Luther King and Billie Holiday, the quartet was singing about personal relationships and, on the Zoo TV tour, ordering 10,000 pizzas onstage. A weirder, more interesting U2 had arrived.
Which wouldn’t have mattered if the songs weren’t so damn good. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses,” “Trying To Throw Your Arms Around the World,” “Mysterious Ways,” and, yes, “One” — these are anthemic without being sanctimonious. And in the case of “So Cruel,” U2 made a gorgeous ballad that was tucked away in the middle of the record, overshadowed by the obvious hit singles but a powerful centerpiece to a fantastic album.
So why “So Cruel”? There’s that piano, for one, which I’d barely noticed before i tried covering the song and replicated the piano on guitar. It plays twice in each line that Bono sings, and the second version is slightly more syncopated than the first. This is a good example of the attention to detail that the band and producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno put in to all these songs. And I think the melody of the chorus is just beautiful, from that high note to the next phrase, which sounds like it’s from an old spiritual. It’s one of those songs that you’re surprised didn’t always exist.
Footnote: I wrote the first draft of this post in a mall food court, and as I was leaving the mall, “Pride (In the Name of Love)” played over the speakers. It fucking haunts me.