U2 – The Joshua Tree
Released March 9th, 1987 on Island Records
Boy made them New Wave stars. War broke them into a bigger stage and staked their claim as political rockers. The Unforgettable Fire led Rolling Stone to claim them as “The Band of the 80s…for many, the only rock ‘n’ roll band that matters.” One more push – The Joshua Tree – and they were bona-fide world-straddling superstars.
The Unforgettable Fire had been more in the line of an experimental album, produced as it was by the duo of Brian Eno and his faithful engineer Daniel Lanois. It’s textures were complicated, it’s songs more impressions than compositions, and it proved to be difficult to translate to a concert setting. For their follow-up, the band wanted to keep the best lessons they’d learned from Eno and Lanois, but pare down, and make their sound more expansive. In the write-up on Neon Bible a few days ago I mentioned that the ocean was the overarching metaphor for the album. In the case of The Joshua Tree, the overarching metaphor is the desert – wide-open, expansive, cinematic in quality. The foundation of this ideal is The Edge’s guitar work. He makes good use of delay, and by “good use” I mean “wrestles it into submission and makes the effect his very own.” Whole reams of music journalism have been written about his playing on tracks like “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (and, more subtly, on “Running To Stand Still.” On the other side, he uses slide techniques he gleaned from a friendship with Keith Richards to approximate the sound of fighter planes and dive bombers on the hard-as-nails “Bullet The Blue Sky.” The rest of the band puts in a yeoman’s work – including Bono, whose voice has never fit the music better, before or since – but The Joshua Tree is without a doubt The Edge’s showcase.
It’s not just about wide-open desert vistas, of course. A big theme of the album is the Irish band’s love-hate relationship with America. Before the recording of the album, Bono visited El Salvador to witness the civil war first-hand. He returned deeply angry with the Reagan administration and American foreign policy in general – this was the heart of “Bullet The Blue Sky” and “Mothers Of The Disappeared”. Ireland and the UK did not escape his anger, either: “Where The Streets Have No Name” is about economic segregation in Belfast, “Red Hill Mining Town” is about the aftermath of the 1984 mining strike in the UK, and “Running To Stand Still” is about drug addiction in Dublin. There’s also a sense of Bono being on a sort of spiritual quest for faith and renewal, with Biblical references, the yearning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and the grief for a lost friend that forms the basis of “One Tree Hill.”
In the aftermath, the band would go on to become crossover pop superstars: millions of albums sold, sold-out world tours, being taken seriously by world leaders. Achtung Baby would be a good follow-up in it’s own right, but after the things that were charming on The Joshua Tree would become over-exaggerated in the harsh floodlights of global fame. The Edge’s guitar work would strive to go further and eventually collapse into self-parody, then complacency. Bono’s anger and spirituality would become tiresome, as he became another jet-setting European elitist making pretty speeches about poverty in the Global South, while conditions continued to deteriorate. Simply put, U2 would never again be as good as they were on The Joshua Tree.