Carving a Heart in The Joshua Tree

They had to go all the way out there just to make the guitars echo like that.

Perhaps the least-cool thing to do in 2011 would be to write an essay on the greatness of U2’s The Joshua Tree album from 1987. I mean, you might get away with singing the praises of 1991’s Achtung Baby, seeing as it’s getting the deluxe makeover remaster reissue bonanza for it’s 20th anniversary this year. And it might be cool to write about The Joshua Tree being terrible and overrated, because the contrary opinion always generates interest.

While Achtung Baby has, for a while now, become the consensus “Best/Favorite” U2 album (itself a contrary opinion once upon a time), The Joshua Tree is the pinnacle and quintessential U2 effort, an epic rock album and in my opinion the best album by this hate-’em-if-ya-want-to legendary band. The two albums certainly represent not only the band’s peak, but also the collective moment when they pivoted. One of my favorite Bono quotes is his description of Achtung Baby as “four men chopping down The Joshua Tree.”

Let’s skip all the peripheral items that don’t matter (Bono’s politics and charitable efforts, whether or not U2 is “overrated”), strip away all the hype and bullshit, and simply discuss the music.

I’ll start where the album starts: “Where the Streets Have No Name.” This is the ultimate U2 song. Maybe it’s not their “best” pure song, but it might be my favorite and their most representative track. If someone had no clue, if they came from the future or the past or from another planet, you could just play that song and say THIS is what U2 is. Play it loud. The way the intro fades in and soon engulfs you in The Edge’s spider web of arpeggio notes drizzling down on you from the delay pedal. And then the bass changes notes and pretty soon the drums come running and racing in and you are charging toward something.

I want to run… I want to hide…

This is the spirit of rock’n’roll in one line of just eight words. The escapism, the energy, the despair and hope. (The kinda stuff that gets writers likes me grappling with bullshit like “the escapism, the energy, the despair and hope.” This song turns me into a school girl with a crush… again, the epitome of rock’n’roll.)

This one song has all the ebbs and flows and trademark sounds and themes that make up U2. It also is the perfect microcosm for The Joshua Tree album itself. It’s not just The Edge’s notes and musical style on display; he wields the guitar like a percussion instrument, attacking the track with scrapes and scratches that have always made his rhythm the secret 5th member of U2.

Again, you gotta play it LOUD. Tell me the outro, that delayed arpeggio stuff at the end (is that right? Arpeggio?), when the chord resolves back down at the very end…. tell me you don’t want that running over the end of the trailer of your movie when it fades to the title screen followed by the COMING NEXT SUMMER screen. Getting chills just typing it. The studio version is great, but when you see/hear it live… that song absolutely sets shit off.

Twisted and dry, but biblical: the Joshua tree photographed for the album art stood until the year 2000 (photo by Matt McGee).

The rest of the album unfolds with an almost-perfect arc. The first three songs are the big hit singles, and perhaps a stumbling block for any of you casual listeners who might break this album out after reading this: “Streets,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You,” have been so overplayed for the last quarter century, that it’s hard to hear them objectively. These songs are everywhere, still, you could here them at the grocery store or a sports bar or on different radio stations that play alternative rock, or 80’s hits, or classic rock, or just “best mix of hits” etc… So, especially taken in three in a row at the beginning, you have to try to listen to them again like it’s the first time and take them on there own merits. There’s a reason they were such massive hits that still resonate.

After the trio of singles, we get into the meat and potatoes of the album. “Bullet the Blue Sky” drops the most powerful bombs right from the drum beat of the intro. And while it’s trite to say this 24 years later, The Edge really does make his guitar wail like some combination of a siren, a hurricane, a train, and of course like those fighter planes.

“Side one” closes with “Running to Stand Still,” a more meditative and less-epic heroin-ballad cousin to the other Best U2 Song Ever, “Bad” from 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. (By the way, I held on to Unforgettable Fire as my favorite U2 album for as long as I could… in a way I think of it as The Joshua Seeds.)

While this album flows well as a complete CD, recorded in 1986 and released in 1987 as the CD era was really getting rolling, The Joshua Tree still has that sense of Sides One and Two, heard not only in the closing notes of the beautifully sad “Running to Stand Still,” but also in the new-day opening of “Red Hill Mining Town.” Granted it’s another day of hard times, but the six songs on Side Two are an under-appreciated stretch of gems. Much has been made about this as U2’s “American” album, with bluesy harmonicas and slide guitars and the “wide open spaces” of the production matching the desert imagery, and a lot of it can be found in the one-two punch of “In God’s Country” and “Trip Through Your Wires.”

The album closes with another pair that would be even more suitably described as a “punch” than the previous two. “Exit” is one of the most hammering and dynamic songs they’ve ever put down on record. Just stunning in its thunderous assault. “Mothers of the Disappeared” sends us off to bed with something a bit more soothing musically, but it’s bleak theme ensures we might still lie awake for a while.

We need new dreams tonight.

It’s funny, as I implied at the beginning, it’s so easy to get lost in all the incessant hype about U2 and “Bono’s ego” or whatever. Fine, it’s hard to ignore and U2 themselves certainly make sure they are constantly relevant (read: exposed) and they will always swing for the fences and crank the hype meter up to 11. (No coincidence that after forming with the name Feedback, they were then known as The Hype before settling on U2.)

This is what can be found at the site of the orginal Joshua tree, a popular destination of U2 fans. Seriously.

But take a trip back out to the desert. Turn up the volume and feel these songs. While I’ve tried to focus on the music here, there’s interesting stuff to read about the title (they considered The Desert Songs and The Two Americas as working titles), the cover art and photo shoot (photographer Anton Corbijn was lucky to find what he was looking for: a single Joshua Tree, though they are usually found in groups), as well as the recording and production by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno.

The Wikipedia page for The Joshua Tree is an incredibly fascinating read (nerd alert). It has 159 footnotes. It’s really very interesting stuff to get lost in while you listen. I couldn’t begin to even summarize it all here. I’ve already gone over a thousand words without even breaking down the sound of the four members of the group.

As much as some might find The Edge to be a “one-trick pony” simply milking one or two notes and of bunch of pedals and effects, I can’t say enough about this guy and the soundscapes he creates. Bono, despite his out-sized melodramatic character, is a gifted vocalist and lyricist and the essential frontman head of this Voltron. Larry Mullen has always provided the tribal chugging beats with a simple but often-unconventional approach; and while I could joke that no one would notice if bass player Adam Clayton was switched out for Jeff Goldblum, his subtle work on The Joshua Tree is effective.

So here’s to the best album by the self-proclaimed “best band in the world.” Here’s to The Joshua Tree, still casting it’s twisted shadow, still as fiery-hot as the desert. (Told ya this wouldn’t be cool.)

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11 Comments

    1. mad love, but as I said, i’ve finally admitted that as much as i love Unforgettable Fire (and Boy and Ocotober and others), The Joshua Tree is the best.

      Reply

  1. This is from the folks at Fringe Underground. And, I couldn’t agree more:

    “Remember when you were a kid and would request rock albums on your Christmas list that your parents refused to buy you? Well, Junior, rock albums should be on every parent’s shit list. Instead, U2 are not only mother- but also grandmother-approved. And you can hear why. Musically speaking, if Iggy Pop is Richard Pryor, U2 is Soupy Sales.”

    While I haven’t given Joshua Tree the intensive re-listen you have, I have to ask myself “why would I?” Why do I want to watch Soupy Sales?

    You know the difference between Soupy Sales and Richard Pryor? It’s not so much the delivery, the facial expressions, or how they animate a story or joke. Richard Pryor was probably only a couple degrees separated through the comedy family tree in those respects.

    No, it was that Richard Pryor’s content was provocative, provided actual social commentary, and resonated. So, while U2 has the delivery down, the ability to set a great theme, the voltron-like cohesion (as you put it) necessary to animate a “story” as a band–and stories are ultimately what all musicians are trying to express in one way or another–where’s the narrative? Where’s the lyrics that make this such a great album?

    Now, I first and foremost gravitate to lyrics. So, take this criticism as such. And, it doesn’t have to be complex, Dylanesque prose for it to resonate with me. Many times, minimalist lyrics with a great voice are striking and appropriate. But, the melodrama of Bono as a personality is all but replicated in his lyrical output. It simply doesn’t hit for me. And, I would argue that it really doesn’t so much for you, on the face of your review anyway. While you don’t point to a single contribution he makes lyrically (rightfully so), you really think he’s a talented lyricist? There’s no question that he can sing. I’ll give you that, but let him “Ha La La La De Day” all he wants, it has no content, no resonating meaning, and doesn’t fit the theme of “escapism, the energy, the despair and hope” when there’s no fucking point to it. Despair, maybe. But, only the despair of thinking this music could have been so much better. The hope that eventually it will come together with something more meaningful, lyrically. The energy is there, but again toward what end or what complement to the music other than having an instrumental voice? And, I agree that’s important, but it’s wasted without an articulate voice.

    While you make a lot of interesting observations about the music and thematic elements of the album, I cannot get past the utter vacuity of Bono as a lyricist.

    Reply

  2. fair enough, i’m sure Bono wishes he was Lennsakata. but seriously, you make valid points, as I wouldn’t hold Bono up among the greatest lyricists of all time. And i could quote lines and couplets or copy/paste whole songs as examples of his better work, but since this is all subjective, you could easily read something I think is good and think, “eh, that sucks.” while he certainly falls into the traps of sometimes only offering empty platitudes, in my opinion, he has written some great songs with good lyrics. and after writing that whole thing, and in the process admitting to spending a couple days obsessed with the Joshua Tree wiki page, i cant claim that i dont have the time or inclination to find/post lyrical examples, I have to ask myself, “Why would I?”

    Reply

  3. Aside from your gratuitous dig, I agree. Its all subjective. I admitted as much, noting that I gravitate to lyrics. But that’s the point right? To discuss from various perspectives. Or is the comment section just for agreement? (There’s my gratuitous dig.) And to that, I do admit readily to the quality of the composition, instrumental virtuosity, and his voice. Each of these things he had some varying part in, I’m sure. But from my humble perspective, the whole thing falls short due to the empty lyrics. Therefore, its not worthy of the hyperbole. For the record, I do not care what Bono wishes. I wouldn’t even know from the pap he spews. Although his publicist team has done a tiptop job trying to explain through the wiki page. :)

    Reply

    1. a great and learned man once told me “nothing good ever happens in the comments section.”

      just kidding, the various perspectives are great. we’ll just have to agree to disagree about Bono’s lyrical talents or lack thereof.

      Reply

  4. Great Read and, not surprisingly, articulates my sentiments pretty accurately.

    A thought about lyrics—if it were just all about the lyrics, I would be satisfied reading poetry forever. but oh, that little magical combination of words and melody and then maybe some rhythm, that is what does it for me. Music.

    Case in point—Bullet the Blue Sky did not do much for me lyrically—thought it was a vaguely preachy and did not really ” speak ” to me. Then I heard it live. And I felt it and that is what music does for me, makes me feel. Sadly the song still resonates.

    Outside it’s America.

    Reply

  5. the most beatiful album i’ve ever listen to..the atmosphere of a desert and the sound of the wind and that sky pure grey…i think that the cover art,even if the album wasn’t perfect ( but it is perfect because every minute of every song it’s important) is enough reason to,at least, listen to it one time..details like the closing of with or without you..or the string arrangement of one tree hill or the drums drowned in sound in mothers of the dissapeared are just a few moments of a record that doesn’t waste any minute of his lenght..the lyrics (especially with or…mothers of the dissapeared…one tree hill and running to stand still) are the most beatiful that Bono has ever written (Edge says that his favourite line on a Bono lyric is from Red hill mining town).and that sound…wow!! is like being in that timeless photo from the cover..looking at it it gives you the sensation to be in that desert alone with your thoughts and life..the wind & the sand in your face blowin gently sometimes and with rage in others…it is whole perfect..the songs,the Eno Lanois production, the photos,Bono’s voice,the tracklist..everything captures one moment in the time of this 4 artists…and with the record they take you on the same journey that they surely did…a trip trough your wires maybe…cheers to everyone and listen anytime you can this record..it reminds you why music it is so important in our lives..

    Reply

  6. Great video, great band, favorite album of all time…period. 14 million copied sold world wide. The music is stirring and inspiring. From Miss Sarajevo with Pavarotti to the story of Joey Ramone listening to “In a Little While” on his death bed, these guys have influenced millions and will continue to do so for a long long time. Thanks for posting.

    Reply

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