Revisiting a Classic: U2, The Joshua Tree

The headline was splashed all over my cell phone: U2 is coming to St. Louis.

The band will be here in September to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the release of their landmark album The Joshua Tree. It was the album that brought the Irish band above ground for good, after they created rumblings with earlier albums Boy and The Unforgettable Fire. The Joshua Tree turned U2 into international superstars.

The band will be playing at the Dome at America’s Center, the former home of the St. Louis Rams. Because of that, I’m not going. Don’t get me wrong: I’d love to see this show. But if you’re familiar with my earlier writing, then you know I simply cannot abide concerts in a room larger than a small theater. I’m betting there will be a DVD release around this show sooner or later. I’ll catch it then.

My disdain for the concert venue caused me to gloss over the reason U2 was coming in the first place: The Joshua Tree is 30 years old!!! Say WHAT?!? That can’t possibly be right! But it is.

I remember picking up my copy in 1987, at the age of 20. My earlier experience with U2, mostly via college radio, left me curious about this new record. The critics lost their ever-loving minds over The Joshua Tree. And since I relied on critics much more than I relied on the charts, I figured there must be something to this new album. Before I knew it, I was at the record store.

I was struck by the grainy black and white photo of the band on the album’s cover. It almost seemed like it was an afterthought, and the band was bothered by having to pose in the first place. Inside the gatefold LP cover (Lord, how I miss those) was a cleaner band photo, albeit still in black and white. Larry Mullen, Jr. (drums), Bono (vocals), Adam Clayton (bass), and The Edge (guitar) had a look of earnestness that told me this band had something to say. But the message wasn’t in the pictures. I needed to experience the music. And that’s precisely what The Joshua Tree is: an experience.

I’ve played a lot of records over the years. There is one word I almost never use to describe an album: perfect. Well, I’m doing it here and now. The Joshua Tree is a perfect album. The tone is set from the opening synthesizer drone, and never lets up. Previous U2 albums sounded to me like they were rooted in punk, influenced by bands like the Clash. U2 offered their own version of “three chords and the truth.” But with this new album, something was different. “Where the Streets Have No Name” showed a band coming to face to face with its potential, and then exceeding it. I don’t think anyone was truly ready for the gentle (but firm) sonic onslaught.

My late mother was a huge gospel music fan. I can still see her swaying to the sounds of Mahalia Jackson and James Cleveland, among countless others. My first impression of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was that it was U2’s version of a gospel song. It reminded me of those Sundays I spent in my grandfather’s Baptist church, where he was the minister. Granted, there weren’t a lot of those days, but they were unforgettable. Bono had experienced many things in his short life, but none of it had reached that deep, spiritual spot yearning to be filled. It’s a lovely song. (By the way, the gospel aspect of this song was brought home one album later, when the band hired a church choir to accompany Bono for this song on Rattle and Hum.)

When I heard the beginning of “With or Without You,” I thought U2 was backing away from the convictions of the opening tunes. Man, did I get that one wrong! The song gets progressively heavier, maintaining the power and scope established in the songs before. It’s not metal. Just heavy.

If I had any doubts about the power of The Joshua Tree, “Bullet the Blue Sky” completely obliterated them. This may very well be my favorite U2 song of all. As a fan of progressive rock and its intricate complexities, I revel in the relative simplicity of this song. And while none of the musicians in U2 have been described as virtuosos (although Edge comes close), this song would not work without the contributions of each. Mullen opens with one of my favorite drum licks, joined shortly after by Clayton’s thunderous bass line. Edge, meanwhile, has his guitar howling and shrieking with glorious feedback, leading into the main riff. Bono has no choice but to wail over the top of the din his bandmates have created. It is brutal. It is vicious. It. Is. GLORIOUS.

I’m sure the band (and producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno) must have sensed that the audience would need a breather after the intensity of “Bullet.” Therefore, the tenderness of “Running to Stand Still” is perfectly placed. I can almost see the band gratefully taking a seat to play this number, sweat still dripping for their faces from the previous number. It’s a great way to close out side one.

Side One is so strong, it almost overpowers the rest of the album. It took me a while to grasp that the music on Side Two was just as strong, while seeming to come from a slightly different angle. I have joked in the past that Side Two of The Joshua Tree could have been played by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who were probably the most powerful band on the planet in 1987. I’m sure they could handle tunes like “Red Hill Mining Town,” “In God’s Country,” “A Trip Through Your Wires,” and “One Tree Hill.” I can’t help but wonder what Bruce would do with a song like “Exit,” which sounds right up his alley.

By the end of “Mothers of the Disappeared,” I am more than aware that I have just been a part of something special. Musicians like Peter Gabriel and Sting were already making me aware of important social issues the world over. U2 shared this social consciousness, and brought it to a wider audience. The song is perfect closure for The Joshua Tree, as it leaves the audience both thrilled and contemplative. Another immediate listen is almost essential!

In the years since The Joshua Tree‘s release, it has become fashionable to hate U2. I’ll be the first to admit that Bono has become a little full of himself.(*) The message has gotten lost, because people have started to hate the messenger. To those people, I can only say this:

You are missing the point.

The Joshua Tree is easily one of the five best albums of the ’80s, and one of the most important of the 20th century. Go back and play it again, and forget about who’s doing the singing. I think you’ll hear what I’m talking about.

While I lament having to see U2 in a football stadium (should I actually give in and try to buy a ticket), I must make an admission. It’s something I’ve never said about a band or its music before. I would love to see The Joshua Tree performed in a club. But the fact of the matter is, the music from this album is too big for a club. It is positively epic in scope. To keep it contained within the confines of a small club would be, at best, a complete and utter injustice. Given the choice, I could tolerate an amphitheater.

I’m glad I pulled this little nugget off my CD shelf again. It’s a welcome reminder of a transitional time in my musical life. Musical moments like this don’t come along every day. Enjoy them while you can.

(*) If you’re thinking about flooding my inbox with your political opinions while blasting Bono’s, please save your breath. I’m not interested. I created this page to be politics-free, although some song material does open that door. Nevertheless, I’m not going to trouble you with my political thoughts. So please extend me the same courtesy.

 

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1 Comment

  1. I liked your Bono caveat – deflectors up Captain!

    It’s a paradox isn’t it? He’s been one of the main reasons I put off listening to their more recent albums but at the same time he’s so integral to the whole package.

    I think the other problem I have with the band these days is that there’s a lot of filler on the albums – they can still come up with good songs, but you have to wade through a lot of average stuff to find them. Atomic Bomb gets off to a flying start with a brace of killer tracks and then runs out of steam, Horizon peaks and dips inconsistently.

    I only managed the last album a couple of times and gave up, but I enjoyed hearing those songs during their Paris broadcast. Maybe because they’d whittled it down to the best stuff. It’s a shame they seem to have an embargo on releasing their gigs on cd – bluray is fine for the home, but I’d give them more air time at the desk if I could listen to it via cd.

    Liked by 1 person

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