Stephen Catanzarite takes on U2’s seventh album - which he describes as being “the record on which U2 can be said to have discovered its genitals” - and examines it as a meditation on the Fall of Man. In addition to stating that the book is not about Achtung Baby, Catanzarite states that he intends the book to be catholic rather than Catholic despite its Christian perspective.
The conceit is interesting and I’ve been looking forward to seeing how it worked in the book. I’m an atheist (and have no interest in metaphysics, even, let alone religion) but I appreciate those books in the series that test the boundaries of the format and I’m willing to suspend a little more disbelief (pun unintended) to see what they offer.
Catanzarite clusters the songs in their album running order, and each set gets a lengthy introduction setting out the broader thesis. There are many long quotations, including appearances by St. Augustine and Richard John Neuhaus, which might have benefited from brevity for the sake of integration rather than appearing like assigned reading.
There’s a running narrative - a third one in parallel to the Fall of Man and Achtung Baby - about a relationship rife with sadness, conflict and infidelity, and this is where the book began to come apart for me. It’s told under the headings of songs but skips across the lyrical and musical content to insert a dialogue, and it marks the point where the wearying Baroque quality of the prose gives way to a truly improbable representation of speech and feelings. Though the fallen couple can be tied back to the larger theme, their story only detracts from it.
(The prose is actually best when Catanzarite is describing the arrangements of the songs - it’s too flourished for my taste, but it does evoke an emotional response to the music and displays analytical skill.)
Things take an unfortunate turn at the sixth chapter, which covers ‘Mysterious Ways’ and ‘Trying to Throw Your Arms Around the World’ and begins with several pages on “women’s wisdom” and the feminine genius. Catanzarite contends that authentic womanhood has been compromised by feminism and scientific rationalism - a fuck-that-noise watershed for me as a reader - and then produces a pair of the most remarkable sentences:
How ironic (and how sad) that by forbidding a man to place a woman on a pedestal so that he might appreciate her virtue, radical feminists have made it all the easier for him to place her on a pedestal in order to look up her dress. The fact that some supposedly “liberated” and “empowered” women offer themselves on such a pedestal is of little consolation.
Completism winning out over repulsion, I did read the rest of the book - there’s death and man’s relationship to God (or the void in its absence), and then an epilogue that places the album in U2’s career, the influences at this turning point in the sound, and how it was received. Achtung Baby was followed by the Zoo tour and its multimedia representation of mass media, Europe with its (literal and figurative) walls taken down, youth culture and colour and theatricality. It’s no more humble than the solemn, preachy U2 that preceded it, but it’s an interesting shift filled with deliberate iconography and a deliberate invocation of dance culture (referenced repeatedly by Catanzarite, but never examined). With the book bearing a regrettably arbitrary connection to the album or to U2, it seems even more of a pity that this is the entry for Achtung Baby rather than one examining the album’s dense cultural identity and posturing.