Pearl: 30 Years of The Joshua Tree

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U2 – The Joshua Tree

Released March 9th, 1987 on Island Records

BestEverAlbums: #34

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.

Imagine Dragons – Smoke and Mirrors

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Imagine Dragons – Smoke and Mirrors

U2 is not cool.  If last year’s “free album on your phone” debacle proved anything, it’s that this maxim is truer now in 2015 than it was even after the release of 1997’s Pop LP.  Whether they were ever cool is a matter for debate; maybe The Joshua Tree had some real moments, or maybe we were all conned into thinking that by desperately ageing Boomers, and naive Xer college students and yuppies clamouring for a rock ‘n’ roll saviour to call their own.  Regardless, their clenched-fist, Jesus-Christ-pose vision of arena rock has infected countless bands ever since, turning what could have been at least okay music into 50 Shades of Cringe.

Take Imagine Dragons for example.  Listen to that delay-ridden guitar burbling under the intro and verses of the title track to their sophomore album, Smoke and Mirrors – blindfold me and I’d swear it’s The Edge playing.  Further on and further in, it becomes apparent that, much like U2, Imagine Dragons can’t pass up the opportunity to take a simple hook and turn it into the biggest, fakest, shiniest diamond hook to ever grace your speakers.  “I’m So Sorry” takes the much-loved, much-abused blues-rock stomp riff and puts it on a Jumbotron, making it into an arena-rock nightmare and somehow nicking the sound of KT Tunstall.  “I Bet My Life” takes a modern indie-radio staple – the whole chooglin’ Of Mumfords and Mens thing – and opens it up wide enough to accommodate a Mac truck and an audience of office MIX-FM radio listeners.  Their pathological need to turn every single song into fireworks and chanting choruses and football stadium cheers ruins what could be decent tracks.  “Polaroid” should be a lot quieter, more like a ballad, stately piano and some fingerpicked guitar.  Instead, there’s a distorted kick drum and a multi-tracked clap, like the band just listened to Queen for the first time and decided that “We Are The Champions” was what every song on Earth should ultimately sound like.

Don’t get me wrong:  I love arena rock when it’s done well, like when King Tuff majestically rewrites the best of Cheap Trick into modern fist-pumper rawk.  Smoke and Mirrors, though, takes the lazy approach to rocking hockey arenas, relying on moody verses to carry them into yet another boom-bang pyrotechnic chorus.  One or two instances of it would be fun, exhilarating even, but on every single track?  It becomes an exercise in gauging how little the audience is paying attention.  Ultimately it’s the perfect album to fill in the rock side of the Top 40 FM mix, since it’s rock ‘n’ roll for the easily amused.