Last week I pulled an old album from the shelf and listened to it in its entirety.  I was marking twenty years since the release of U2’s “Achtung Baby,” an album that stands as a masterful combination of playful irony and dark soul searching.  Like so many fans, I lined up to buy it on the first day of its release, but I had no idea how deeply it would resonate with my own experience as an idealistic college kid studying religion and literature.

What most of us noticed the first time we spun the record was how wildly different it was from U2’s previous body of work.  Rather than the earnest, hymn-like anthems the band had mastered on “The Joshua Tree” and “The Unforgettable Fire,” which featured a trademark chiming guitar and reverb anchored by a solid rhythm section, “Achtung Baby” began with a garble of fuzz and funk, an indecipherable mishmash of sounds that wobbled into a pattern of moody swirls and jerks.  What followed was a classic rock and roll reinvention, where a once straightforward band applied layer after glossy layer of irony and cheek.  The track list tumbled effortlessly through a soundscape of melancholy bass lines, angular guitar riffs, and shimmering drums–the band’s old sound was now infused with the new club music of the early 1990s, the political energy of the fall of the Berlin wall, and a deep, brooding sadness brought about by the guitar player’s broken marriage.  It was a whale of a record (a point which I think can be proved by listening to it and then listening to anything else from 1991), but there was more to it than the music.

The lyrics to “Achtung Baby” read like a hymn book for skeptics.  I sang them on the sidewalk between English and Religion classes, aware of the allusions to Oscar Wilde, Delmore Schwartz, and most of all, the Bible.  One song, “Until the End of the World,” relates a conversation between Judas and Jesus; a b-side, “Salome,” imagines the dancing girl who asked for the head of John the Baptist.  Every song was rich in imagery and they all affected me.  A few years later, I found myself still quoting the record.  In a seminary paper I included a lyric from the song “Acrobat”:

And I’d join the movement / If there was one I could believe in / Yeah I’d break bread and wine / If there was a church I could receive in / ‘Cos I need it now / To take the cup / To fill it up / To drink it slow / I can’t let you go

The record sold millions, and perhaps for casual fans it was just another album, a bunch of great songs to play loudly at parties; but for me it was a soulful and searching experience, a moment when a silly rock and roll band began to scratch beneath the surface to get at some very deep questions.  Twenty years later, the record still holds up.  And it brings me a question:

What are the records that most influenced you?  What sets of songs resonated with you?  What works, when released, connected with your own deepest feelings and questions?  What do you still pull off the shelf after all these years?

I can’t wait to read your answers.  I’ll have my headphones ready.

With aloha,

J

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