U2, The Joshua Tree (Island, 1987)
- Bono: vocals, rhythm guitar
- The Edge: guitars
- Adam Clayton: bass
- Larry Mullen, Jr: drums
- Where the Streets Have No Name
- I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
- With or Without You
- Bullet the Blue Sky
- Running to Stand Still
- Red Hill Mining Town
- In God’s Country
- Trip Through Your Wires
- One Tree Hill
- Mothers of the Disappeared
I was done with commercial radio by 1985. King Crimson and progressive rock had become etched into my musical DNA, and it sure as hell wasn’t getting played on any commercial stations.
From time to time, however, I could hear some of my prog rock faves on college radio. The stations were usually on the far left side of the radio dial (you had to turn a dial back then), were run by university students, and the signals were full of static. No matter: some of my favorite music in the world could be found there.
In the mid-80’s, bands like R.E.M., the B-52s, Depeche Mode, and The Cure we’re still relatively underground, but their stock was rising rapidly. The same could be said for an Irish quartet calling themselves U2. The door of superstardom had been placed in front of them. It was only a matter of time before they stepped through.
U2 was pretty cool “cause rock.” That is to say, their music was always geared to one social issue or another. They were “woke” before that became a Thing. They sang about the evils of war, the case for social equality, and Martin Luther King. A couple of their singles managed to hijack the airwaves of MTV. Yeah … stardom was coming.
Stardom officially arrived in 1987, when U2 released The Joshua Tree. Nothing was the same afterward.
The college radio airwaves were in a frenzy in anticipation of this album’s release. Something told me I needed to be a part of this phenomenon. The day it was released, a copy of The Joshua Tree came home with me. From the moment needle hit vinyl, I knew I was in for something special.
Only one word describes this album for me. That word is epic. U2 had doubled (if not tripled) down on everything they had done to that point, and it was working. Producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno opened the musical floodgates, and U2 was suddenly awash over everything.
From the opening strains of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” I knew I was experience something special. The swirl of synthesizers built slowly and steadily, followed by the jangling guitar of The Edge, bringing forth the band’s signature sound. By the time the beat drops, with bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. joining the fray, we are off and running.
The second tune, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” sticks out for an unusual reason. I was still living at home when I got the album, and I was playing it in my bedroom. My mother just happened to walk by when this tune was playing. She asked me what I was listening to. When I told her it was an Irish band called U2, she seemed puzzled. “That sounds like a gospel song,” she said, and had me play it again. I could hear her humming it the rest of the day.
Mom turned out to be quite prescient. When U2 released Rattle and Hum in ’88, it contained a live version of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Wouldn’t you know, the band had a gospel choir backing them up! When I told Mom, she laughed and exclaimed, “I told you!” She was a wise woman, my mom.
“With or Without You” is a marvelous ballad, driven nicely by Clayton’s bass and Bono’s aching vocal. Lord knows I’ve had people in my life I couldn’t live with or without. The band does a great job of tapping into relationship dynamics and the complications that come with them.
I was already sold on the album, but Mullen’s pulsating drum intro and Edge’s dive-bomb guitar follow-up — the key elements of “Bullet the Blue Sky” — cemented it for me. The song is pure rock and roll, but from a different angle. Bono’s vocal break was just what the song needed, even though he overdid it a bit on Rattle and Hum.
“Running to Stand Still” contains one of my all-time favorite lyrics. Every time I hear “You’ve got to cry without weeping/Talk without speaking/Scream without raising your voice,” I have to sing along. Every. Single. Time. I don’t know why that lyric resonates with me. It just does. Edge’s slide guitar work combined with the piano chords makes for a quality tune.
U2 could have stopped there and had a work of genius. But lucky for us, we still had Side Two to look forward to.
While they are certainly separate songs, “Red Hill Mining Town” and “In God’s Country” sound like a suite to me. Maybe it’s the progressive rocker in me. Either way, they’re cool songs that nicely establish the tempo for nearly the rest of the album. I was listening to a bit of Bruce Springsteen during this period, and the harmonica intro to “A Trip Through Your Wires” made me think of him. It would have been interesting to hear a duet between Springsteen and Bono. Well, nobody called me for ideas.
“One Tree Hill” provides one last moment of gospel-like uplift. Bono pours his soul into the lyrics, practically wailing toward the end. I like to think his “Whoo!” indicates him striking the chord he was aiming for. It’s this release that pours into the final refrain, putting a nice bow on things.
For anyone else, “Exit” and “Mothers of the Disappeared” would seem like a pretty bleak way to wrap up an album. For U2, it makes sense. They are, after all, a band with a cause. And they don’t want you to forget that. “Mothers …” is as dark and brooding as it gets, forcing you to look within yourself and even explore the causes the band mentions in their liner notes. I for one found myself looking deeper into Amnesty International.
I remember staring off into space for several minutes after hearing the needle come off my LP. Music that makes one introspective and thoughtful tends to resonate for quite some time.
The Joshua Tree is one of those albums that gets better with age and repeated playings. There is nothing dated here. It’s a record that stands up to deconstruction, revealing more than a few fascinating layers. Despite its mega commercial success, this is truly a musician’s record.
As the years wore on, more and more people started suffering from “Bono fatigue.” His impassioned pleas for justice started to come off as preachy. He started seem more like a raging egomaniac than the frontman of a band with a cause. Before I knew it, hating Bono became fashionable. Trouble is, that mindset made it hard to hear the music. People were stuck on disliking the man. And that’s a shame, because the music is fantastic! Sometimes, you just have to separate the two.
My prog-driven friends like to throw the word “transformative” around when they discuss their all-time favorite albums. Well, I’m gonna use it here. U2 created a masterpiece that elevated college rock to the highest level. The secret was now completely out: those underground bands were truly worth deep commercial exploration.
The Bono haters will no doubt push back when I declare The Joshua Tree a perfect album. But it is. And I have some bad news for those on the negative side of U2:
They made another one.
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