On November 18, 1991, I was a little over two months into my freshman year of college and I wasn’t having a great time of it. School itself was going OK, but I was not fitting in at all with my obnoxious roommates. I missed my girlfriend, who was back home. I was also, generally speaking, feeling down and blue and gloomy. I didn’t realize it at the time and wouldn’t for years, but I was going through a depressive episode, the likes of which I’ve experienced on and off since I was 16. It was just a bad time all around.
My mom called me that afternoon and could tell I wasn’t doing well. We didn’t talk too deeply about it, but she told me that I should do something nice for myself. I was dead broke, but she said it’d be OK if I took the credit card she had given me for emergencies – and only emergencies – over to High Street and spent $20-25 to get myself something good to eat or to buy something for myself. I wasn’t hungry, but it was Tuesday and that was the day new albums came out, so I went to a record store and looked around. I don’t remember what else was in the new releases that week, but U2′s new album, “Achtung Baby,” was there.
Like anyone who grew up in the 80s I liked U2 well enough. They were ubiquitous. They were overplayed at times. They had a tendency to be a bit cringeworthy with their earnestness and, with “Rattle and Hum,” their misguidedness, but they were certainly a quality band. Most of their stuff was head and shoulders above what the other huge bands of their day were putting out. Still, by the end of the 80s I was less into the huge bands than I was into synthpop and post-punk and stuff like that so U2 was not often at the top of my playlist. I tended to appreciate them more than I really loved them.
It had been awhile since U2 had put anything out. The single “The Fly” was beginning to be played on the radio that fall, but it was background noise around my dorm at best. Everyone was listening to Nirvana, the Red Hot Chili Peppers or Peal Jam. Many were still listening to Guns ‘N Roses and, hell, even Michael Jackson had a new single out. A lot of us kids from the boonies were being exposed to real hip hop for the first time, and that was a hell of a lot more exciting than anything on pop radio. I didn’t read rock magazines very often then and hadn’t seen MTV since I left for school, so a new U2 album was something of a surprise to me. Curious and amused, I picked it up.
I’m no music critic, so I won’t go blow-by-blow trough the album (many others can do that better than I can), but when I took it back to my dorm room, put on the headphones and cranked it up, I was surprised. Affected. Eventually transported. I listened to it three times in succession, stopping only to use the remaining $10 from my mom’s suggested splurge to order a pizza. The dance jams and techo exercises cheered me up. The ballads, all of which are heavy or dark and sometimes heavy and dark, helped me wallow more effectively which, as everyone knows, is often necessary at such times. There were still plenty of places for The Edge’s signature crazy, stinging guitar riffs, but they had a more sinister and, in the mood I was in, welcome bite to them. Above all else, the cinematic sweep and cohesiveness of the album made me feel like, yes, things can make sense and that order can be found amidst seeming chaos.
I continued to listen to it constantly for a week. Even after I dialed it back a bit, it became the soundtrack for the rest of the fall and much of the winter. I won’t say that “Achtung Baby” brought me out of the depressive state I was in that November – a depression that can be cured by the spin of a record isn’t really a depression – but I came out of that depressive state while listening to “Achtung Baby.” I’ve gone back to it over and over again, sometimes just for the hell of it, but often when I’ve needed a boost. It doesn’t always work but it always feels good.
I still have the same general relationship with U2 that I had back in 1991. I appreciate them more than I love them and I appreciate some of the things they’ve done far more than others. I’m certainly not a fanboy of theirs by any stretch. But “Achtung Baby” is a desert island album for me. One of the small handful of albums I’ve owned that I’ve needed even more than I enjoyed, even if I’ve enjoyed it immensely. It has a deep and personal meaning for me. I will always remember where I was when it found me and I will never go too long without giving it a spin.
Happy 25th birthday, “Achtung Baby.”