“We hope you enjoy our new direction!” The infamous line from This Is Spinal Tap has likely haunted any band which has seen the movie (which is every band in existence, don’t lie) and decides to take an artistic left turn. Nothing ventured, nothing gained; but sometimes that left turn just doesn’t work.
Happily, in other cases it does. So in the spirit of staying positive, below are ten examples of artistic risks that did pay off. In some cases these albums actually helped create new paths for the artist going forward; at other times they were more of an interesting diversion. But in all cases, these ten albums stand the test of time and are satisfying listens no matter what the context.
1. U2 – Achtung Baby
Since the whole world seems to be snarking on U2 for invading our iPhones (and wondering how to get their new album off of their devices), it’s fair to remind everyone that not only has U2 been the biggest band in the world for decades, but at the absolute peak of their popularity, the four bandmembers took a huge risk with their 1991 album Achtung Baby. After successfully transitioning from post-punk minimalists in the early ’80s, they set out for the heart of America and scored their biggest album ever with 1987’s The Joshua Tree. Even their somewhat self-indulgent love-letter to Americana, Rattle and Hum, didn’t shake their status as the world’s biggest band. But when they debuted Achtung Baby with “The Fly,” they were nearly unrecognizable, visually and sound-wise. Bono hid his eyes with goggle-like shades, wrapped himself in black leather and belted vocals filled with cynicism and snark. Of course, Bono and the band were still themselves beneath the Euro-trash veneer. While “The Fly,” “Mysterious Ways” and “Even Better Than The Real Thing” sported their new sneer, “One”—which soon replaced “Pride (In The Name of Love)” as the band’s signature song—showed that U2 was as emotional as ever when they let their guard down.
2. Bob Dylan – Bringing It All Back Home
When Dylan began playing electric guitar backed by a band, how did his fans enjoy his “new direction”? One fan famously yelled “Judas!” (you can hear it on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert). A predecessor to Achtung Baby, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home saw Dylan go from beloved folkie to a hipster rocker. The proto-rap “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” the hard-rocking “Outlaw Blues” and “On The Road Again,” all of which may have freaked out folkies at the time. But the album didn’t abandon politics (“Maggie’s Farm,” “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”) or acoustic music (“It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” “Mr. Tambourine Man”). Bob also changed his look: he went from rustic-looking busker to a guy wearing black leather and shades. Clearly, Bono took note. And years later, Bringing It All Back Home is regarded as a classic, one of Dylan’s best albums…and maybe his greatest.