Happy 30th Anniversary to U2’s fifth studio album The Joshua Tree, originally released March 9, 1987.
“Contextually, 'The Joshua Tree' seemed to in some ways mirror the changes that were happening in the world during the Thatcher/Reagan period. It seems like we’ve kind of come full circle and we’re back there with a different cast of characters.” – Adam Clayton, ‘Mojo’ Magazine, April 2017 issue
Adam Clayton’s astute reflections in the current edition of Mojo reinforce the old adage that suggests that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Indeed, the political and cultural parallels the U2 bassist identifies between the New Right driven, Thatcher/Reagan endorsed conservatism of the mid to late 1980s and the resurgent, post-Brexit/Trump nationalism we’re confronted with in 2017 seem to bear all the hallmarks of history repeating.
On a brighter and considerably less disenchanting note, however, musical parallels between the two eras have emerged as well. A prime case in point is the fact that Clayton and his U2 comrades Paul “Bono” Hewson, David “The Edge” Evans, and Larry Mullen Jr. have opted to postpone the release of their forthcoming fourteenth studio album Songs of Experience, in favor of hitting the road for The Joshua Tree Tour 2017. Thirty years since they released their transformative masterpiece and toured the world in support of it, the band plans to perform the album in its entirety across a 10-week, 33-city jaunt throughout North America and Europe, which kicks off May 12th in Vancouver. While the group’s lifelong fans will surely be reminded of the album’s timeless grace and eloquence, a whole new generation will presumably be introduced to its undeniable brilliance.
In January 1986, when U2 returned to the studio in Dublin with producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, the foursome were fifteen months removed from the release of their fourth studio LP The Unforgettable Fire. As with 1983’s War, the more musically experimental follow-up captured the number 1 spot on the UK album chart, signaling that the group’s star remained very much in the ascendant, while their creative risk-taking had paid off. Nevertheless, such commercial and critical ubiquity continued to fall just out of reach for them on the opposite side of the Atlantic, where their legion of US fans was expanding and album sales were healthy, but still somewhat modest, relatively speaking.
In parallel to their career ambitions of finally breaking through in a big way stateside, the band had cultivated their own romanticized preoccupation with the cultural and geographical behemoth of America, informed by their experiences touring there. In a 1987 radio interview, The Edge explained that, “The Joshua Tree is a record based thematically on America,” adding that the album was inspired by the band being “so fascinated with this culture, the very paradoxes of this place has led us to start investigating the original music, the seminal influences of music here. These are all things that [resulted from] becoming saturated with America, American culture and American music over the past 12 months.”
The band’s relationship with America was indeed a conflicted one. On one hand, they were awestruck by the sheer vastness of the country itself and the so-called American Dream. On the other hand, they were rightfully concerned with the political conservatism at the time that made the American Dream so elusive for so many of the more socially and economically marginalized people in the country.
Featuring images of the group in Death Valley taken by acclaimed Dutch photographer Anton Corbijn, the album artwork captures U2’s irresolute stance when it came to fully embracing America and Americanism. With expansive desert terrain as the scenic backdrop, the group appear contemplative, yet also isolated and uncomfortable in their juxtaposition with the surrounding landscape. Corbijn has stated that the images were “taken with a panoramic camera to take more of the landscapes in which was the main idea of the shoot: man and environment, the Irish in America.”
Musically, the band, Lanois and Eno looked to The Joshua Tree as an opportunity to steer away from the more adventurous strains of its precursor in favor of more conventional, well-defined song structures. “As with much U2 work, it's 'reactionary' in a sense,” The Edge confided to the Irish music magazine Hot Press in 1987. “Whereas War was a reaction to the weak, placid music we saw everywhere, I think this was, in a funny way, our reaction to The Unforgettable Fire. We had experimented a lot in its making and done quite revolutionary things for us, like ‘Elvis Presley in America’ and ‘4th Of July.’ We felt on this record that maybe, options were not such a good thing, that limitation might be very positive. So we decided to work within the limitations of the song as a starting-point. Let's actually write songs. We just wanted to leave the record less vague, open-ended, atmospheric and impressionistic. Make it more straightforward, focused and concise.” Despite this change of vision for the album’s sonic direction, however, The Joshua Tree still ended up sounding unlike anything anyone had ever heard before.
If you were to suggest that The Joshua Tree’s opening trio of songs is the finest back-to-back-to-back sequence on any album, ever, I wouldn’t argue with you. A multi-layered, intricately woven song that was allegedly the most demanding of the album’s compositions to record, opener and third single “Where the Streets Have No Name” gains steam with an ambient introduction that morphs into a propulsive, soaring anthem bolstered by The Edge’s insistent and dexterous guitar play. "Oh yeah, I remember that one alright, that was the science project song," Lanois confessed to Hot Press in 2007. "I remember having this massive schoolhouse blackboard, as we call them. I was holding a pointer, like a college professor, walking the band through the chord changes like a fucking nerd. It was ridiculous."
Inspired by Belfast, Northern Ireland, but also informed by Bono’s sojourn in Ethiopia, “Where the Streets Have No Name” finds the U2 frontman deconstructing the arbitrary yet divisive social, cultural, racial, political, and religious barriers that segregate people geographically. He envisions a more utopian vision of civilization in which cultural stereotypes are cast aside, differences are celebrated as a the means of uniting people, and the streets where people live can no longer be used as demarcations of their various allegiances.
The sweeping, hymn-like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” follows, with Bono’s biblical allusions interspersed throughout, as best evidenced in the third verse: “I believe in the Kingdom Come / Then all the colours will bleed into one / Bleed into one / But yes, I'm still running / You broke the bonds / And you loosed the chains / Carried the cross of my shame / Oh my shame, you know I believe it.” Seldom has the quintessentially human, eternal quest for purpose in life—an aim that many never truly fulfill—been articulated with so much restless fervor as it is here throughout the album’s second single.
One of the most gorgeously evocative songs ever composed, the stunning lead single “With or Without You” is propelled by Clayton’s steady bassline groove and The Edge’s spine-tingling guitar work, with the extended opening crescendo climaxing with Bono’s yelps and Mullen’s prominent percussion shortly after the 3-minute mark. The song examines the dichotomy between the alluring, wanderlust-driven temptations of fame and the comforts of a more humbled lifestyle of domesticity. It also reinforces the complex nature of relationships, founded upon the challenges of reconciling our innate desire for freedom and independence with the equally powerful need for cohabitation and love. In the yearning, repeated lines of the bridge, Bono declares, “And you give yourself away,” reflecting the subjugation of individual desires in exchange for more selfless devotion to another.
While most of the attention devoted to The Joshua Tree was understandably yet disproportionately focused on the aforementioned trio of singles due to their inescapable ubiquity on radio and MTV, the rest of the album is full of standouts that belong among U2’s strongest recordings.
Clocking in at just shy of 3 minutes, “In God’s Country” is the album’s most abbreviated tune, but it still manages to strike right at the heart of the band’s love-hate connection to America and their perceived antagonism between the American dream in theory and in practice. This is most apparent within the references to “sad eyes, crooked crosses” and the opening lines: “Desert sky, dream beneath the desert sky / The rivers run but soon run dry / We need new dreams tonight / Desert rose, dreamed I saw a desert rose / Dress torn in ribbons and bows / Like a siren she calls (to me).” Bono dedicated the song to the complicated symbolism of the Statue of Liberty, singing “She is liberty, and she comes to rescue me / Hope, faith, her vanity / The greatest gift is gold,” which suggests that with its defining hyper-materialism, “God’s Country” is flawed and far from godly in the truest sense of the word. With shades of Springsteen and Dylan, the rootsy “Trip Through Your Wires” reinforces the band’s conflicted relationship with America through the analogy of its seductive female subject possessed of a good and evil duality, which Bono evokes in the song’s chorus (“Angel, angel or devil”).
An empathetic examination of escapism through drug use steeped in the musical traditions of Americana, the guitar, piano and harmonica driven folk-rock of “Running to Stand Still” sounds far from anything the band had ever composed to date. Arguably the most incongruous of the eleven songs on offer here is the haunting “Exit,” a stark meditation that delves into the psyche of a desperate serial killer, inspired by two books that had made a profound impact on Bono: Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song (1979) and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood (1966). Bolstered by some of the most impassioned vocals Bono has ever recorded, “Red Hill Mining Town” revisits the psychological and emotional toll of the 1984 National Union of Mineworkers strike, which was provoked by the British National Coal Board's decision to shutter unprofitable mines, leaving many miners without work, stripping them of their dignity and ability to provide for their families.
The raging, jarring “Bullet the Blue Sky” is arguably the song’s most straight-ahead rocker, inspired by the United States’ decision to provide military aid to El Salvador’s oppressive government during the Salvadoran Civil War which lasted from 1979 to 1992 and was defined by extensive human rights violations and civilian bloodshed. It’s a seething anti-war anthem that takes President Reagan to task for his role in the state-mandated atrocities, while also extending the diatribe against injustice to the legacy of the Ku Klux Klan’s trail of terror on American soil (“You plant a demon seed / You raise a flower of fire / We see them burnin' crosses / See the flames, higher and higher”).
Plaintive album closer “Mothers of the Disappeared” pays tribute to the mothers of the children who were kidnapped and in many cases imprisoned or assassinated by the opposition-quelling military dictatorships of Argentina, Chile and El Salvador in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Within the broader context of the album’s core themes of American hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy, “Mothers” is an implicit denunciation of the Reagan administration for aiding and abetting these regimes, despite their blatant disregard for human rights and the sanctity of life.
The most personal and emotional moment on The Joshua Tree is the inspired “One Tree Hill,” a redemptive eulogy for Greg Carroll, Bono’s confidante and U2’s roadie who died in a motorcycle accident in 1986 and to whom the entirety of the album is dedicated. “I'll see you again when the stars fall from the sky / And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill,” Bono ruminates, referencing the biblical passage found in Revelations 6:12-14, as well as the volcanic peak One Tree Hill located in Auckland, the largest city in Carroll’s native New Zealand.
Shortly after the album’s release in March 1987, Bono told Rolling Stone that the goal of U2’s songs was “To inspire people to do things for themselves. To inspire people to think for themselves.” Indeed, more important than the fact that The Joshua Tree went platinum many times over and became the band’s first in a subsequent string of number 1 albums in the US, it succeeded in inspiring tens of millions of lives across the globe and still resonates three decades on.
Like many other U2 fans, my wife and I have periodically debated whether The Joshua Tree or its follow-up Achtung Baby represents U2’s finest album across their prolific career. While I tend to gravitate toward the former, she invariably favors the latter. But ultimately, the debate is a futile and foolhardy one. Both albums are thematically provocative, emotionally heavy, and musically expansive, in very distinctive ways. And both are unequivocal masterpieces.
Now let’s just hope that U2 have another masterpiece tucked up their sleeves in the form of the forthcoming Songs of Experience, as a convincing case can be made that the world needs their inspired voices and songs now more than ever.