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U2 bounces back

Their new album focuses on personal relationships, not on saving the world

At last report, the Irish rockers U2 were reeling from overexposure. They had scored a global No. 1 hit with their "Joshua Tree" album, leading to a hobbyist journey through the American South that climaxed with "Rattle and Hum," a chaotic, dashed-off disc that paid homage to Memphis, Nashville and ultimately themselves, since they made a self-promotional film about the experience. U2 were rattling and humming everywhere -- and that was part of the problem.

During that 1987-'88 blitz, they became the world's most noted rock band -- and its most noted band of conscience. They worked with Amnesty International and, on the "Joshua Tree" album, wrote about children in

Vietnam ("Bullet the Blue Sky") and oppressed coal miners ("Red Hill Mining Town").

But once overexposure set in, U2 needed to disappear for a while. They toured Japan and retreated to Dublin, but it's striking how well they've bounced back. Their new album, "Achtung Baby" (Achtung is German for attention), not only reinvigorates their sound, but drops any self- righteousness. The songs focus on personal relationships, not on saving the world.

It's a more modest, less chest-thumping stance -- and it's interesting that the album, due out Tuesday, is being released "without fanfare," as Billboard remarked this week. The magazine contrasted U2's low-key return with the exaggerated maxi-hype behind the new Michael Jackson and Hammer albums.

The new "Achtung Baby" follows the lead of the album's first single, "The Fly," meaning there's a heavier, more industrial sound to the band, vs. the gauzily atmospheric, almost spiritually New Age sound of parts of "Joshua Tree." U2 could have played it safe, but they chose to experiment. If there's such a thing as a hybrid between '90s industrial music and '60s psychedelic music, this is it. Clanging, knob-twisting sound effects run through the record, as does the metallic, head-snapping guitar of David (The Edge) Evans, who has never shone this brilliantly.

These sonic assaults are teamed with dreamily processed vocals that recall Beatles psychedelia on the album's opening track, "Zoo Station" (with singer Bono kidding that "I'm ready for laughing gas"); and even some classic Rolling Stones rock in "Ultraviolet (Light My Way)," with a chorus adapted

from the Stones' "Out of Time."

This points up another strength of the album. U2 are no longer as explosively creative as they were on early albums such as "War" and "October," when they were new wave rock avatars. But they've taken some of that youthfully spontaneous creativity and matched it with a deeper sense of rock history. They deserve their cross-generational audience, which should only increase with this new effort.

The record was made in Berlin, in the site of a former Nazi mess hall now occupied by Hansa Studios. Producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, who fashioned "Joshua Tree," were at the controls. The music took a year to make -- and no doubt the industrial edges were influenced by the Berlin setting, which contrasted to making "Joshua Tree" in a rural Irish castle.

Eno, who recorded David Bowie's "Heroes" album in the same Berlin studio, wrote a background piece on "Achtung Baby" in the latest issue of Rolling Stone. His summary is uncanny: "Buzzwords on this record were trashy, throwaway, dark, sexy and industrial (all good); and earnest, polite, sweet, righteous, rockist and linear (all bad). It was good if a song took you on a journey or made you think your hi-fi was broken, bad if it reminded you of recording studios or U2."

Singer Bono tries so hard not to clone his previous U2 vocals that he sometimes disguises his voice too much in the techno-processing. But he's still his yearning self in such exceptional love songs as "Mysterious Ways" (with a rapturous chorus), "Even Better than the Real Thing" (though hampered by a cornball lyric: "We're free to fly the crimson sky/the sun won't melt our wings tonight"); and the spark-filled "Acrobat," where Bono informs a lover: "Don't let the bastards grind you down."

There also are a few embittered love songs, which again should jar U2's exalted, citizen-of-the-world image. "So Cruel" has a minimalist drum sound from Larry Mullen and an even more minimalist vocal from Bono: "The men who love you the most/They pass through you like a ghost/They look for you, but your spirit is in the air/Baby, you're nowhere."

And then, there's the album's best song, the raging rocker "Until the End of the World," with Adam Clayton's fiery bass runs and Bono's terse kiss-off to a former lover at a party: "We ate the food/We drank the wine/Everybody having a good time/Except you -- you were talking about the end of the world."

In sum, U2 aren't talking about the end of the world this time. The music has a harder overall edge than "Joshua Tree," but a much earthier pitch. (Speaking of earthy, bassist Clayton poses frontally nude in a small, blurry photo on the album's back cover, in an apparent mimic of John Lennon's "Two Virgins" album cover. Retail stores will provide stickers if consumers find it offensive.)

For the most part, this is a far more humble U2. Sings a chastened Bono: "I'm ready for what's next/Ready to duck/Ready to dive/Ready to say/I'm glad to be alive."

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