erasing clouds

Book Review: Stephen Catanzarite's Achtung Baby (33 1/3 Series)

reviewed by dave heaton

”As the album invites it, and because I myself view reality through the looking glass of my Catholic faith, this book has a decidedly Christian perspective. I hope readers who do not share my faith or my point of view will stay with me.”

So writes Stephen Catanzarite in the preface to his book on U2’s Achtung Baby, an entry in the 33 1/3 Series of small books on albums that are big in stature, to the author at the very least. Catanzarite’s approach to the album is refreshing, not because I share his perspective or agree with all of his points about the album, but because he has a perspective, he has his own ideas about the album, and he isn’t afraid to share them, to get them down as completely and explicitly as he can. I cherish every entry in this series, yet at times there’s a tendency for writers to fall back on the “here’s the story of the album” approach. I always prefer those where the writer is thinking about the album on paper – deeply, closely, carefully. And that’s absolutely the case here.

Of course, tackling U2 ‘s music as Christian isn’t exactly a surprising move. Though there’s U2 albums that might seem to fit more neatly into that approach than Achtung Baby, the album is ridden with Christian themes and imagery. Catanzarite unpacks those themes while taking the album on sung by song. The creative-writing exercises he starts each chapter with, where he embodies each song’s theme through characters, don’t work too well for me. They seem a bit forced, and based too much on generic and stereotypical notions of human, and gender, behavior. Once past them, though, each chapter contains Catanzarite’s precise and thoughtful analysis of each song. He handily pulls in religious scholars and the Bible to make his points, and ultimately paints a strong picture of Achtung Baby as an album that maps out the inner conflict of human hearts and souls – those of individuals and the way that manifests itself in society as a whole. As he puts it, “the album as a whole serves as the reflection of a civilization at a cultural crossroads. “

Though he deals more thoroughly with the album’s lyrics than its music, he doesn’t entirely cast that aside either. Achtung Baby in his view is the album where everything comes together for U2: “the realization of the band”. He makes the case persuasively, while paying the most attention to what matters to him most, matters of faith. At the same time, he’s a capable enough writer to convince even skeptical readers that these matters are in a way universal, and that U2’s album is an example of artists tackling the big questions that face humankind.


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