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.
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.)
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.)