Some of these albums require several complete listens from front to back for me to learn the nuances and figure out how I feel about the record, and then there are some that I could write about without even a second thought. “The Joshua Tree” by U2 definitely belongs in that second category, as I have no doubt listened to it from beginning to end hundreds of times, and certain pieces of it many times moreover. This monumental moment for the band is when they transcended from being one of the biggest bands in the world to being THE biggest band in the world, and not only was it a massive success critically and commercially, it was one of the most influential records of the 1980s for me personally as well. This album is rated #135 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, which feels way too low for this powerful piece.
Coming into this record, this Irish band was evolving after multiple years on the road, primarily in America like many British bands from the original invasion. They were popular worldwide, but it was in America where the big money and biggest crowds were, and Bono and the band became fascinated with the overwhelming presence of the U.S. As they dug deeper into the culture, history, and worldwide presence of the United States, they learned the intricacies of American blues, and they also learned the promise and potential of this country sometimes were in direct contradiction with how we lived up to the words or intentions of our founding fathers. The resulting product was a record based on, and influenced by, these historical sounds and images of America, and the contrasting realities of beauty and arrogance and oppression many outside (and inside) the U.S. were also discovering during the 1980s.
Musically, the record was another major step forward for the band. Once again, they worked with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno to help fill out the echoes and sensations of this record. Of the eleven songs on this record, I’m fairly well enthralled by ten of the songs, and “Exit”, the one I’m on the fence on, probably created some of their most dramatic reactions when played live. This album came about at a time when I needed it most. Living alone and away from my family, I was now in college in Colorado, and my world was defined by the relationships with my friends, and in some cases, the relationships I lacked. I loved this band and this record, and it became one of two albums that really permeated our lives and our house (The Rat Mansion) during my third year in college. In particular, my friends Mike and John and I would endlessly play “The Joshua Tree” and debate the meaning of life while playing late night darts, and seeing the band live twice while on tour for this record (once in Colorado with my friend Joe, among others, and once in Baton Rouge with my sister) reinforced my passion for their music.
As I start to break down the individual songs, it was important to reference their live show for the first song. Over my lifetime, I have seen hundreds of concerts, and while I would really struggle to pick my single all-time favorite show, I can say without any doubt that the best opening song performance, for all of its electricity and musical theater, is “Where the Streets Have No Name”. Starting with the growing hum of the keyboard, the silhouetted backdrop shows us Larry Mullen Jr., Adam Clayton, The Edge, and finally Bono, in his signature cowboy hat, each entering the stage as Mullen begins in rhythm and in sync with the iconic opening notes from The Edge. It really is a sight to see, and if you want proof, search for the version of this song in the movie “Rattle and Hum” and you will see exactly what I mean. I have never felt a surge of energy quite like when they blast the house lights and explode into the song. I learned that U2 ultimately asked an outside party to sequence the songs when they finished the album, with two exceptions being the first and last songs, and with both, there could be no other way.
The second song is “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, tapping into Bono and the band’s spiritual roots and spiritual search, all at once. It was another massive hit, and although not my favorite from this record, it is a great one, especially when performed live with some altered arrangements.
Perhaps the most personal song for me on the album is “With or Without You”, the first and biggest single from the record. Although this time in my life was amongst the happiest periods I have ever known, with an amazing group of friends and never-ending adventure, unlike high school, college represented a long run in my life with no connected or committed relationships. While this was most likely for the best in the long run, it certainly left me with feelings of hurt and sadness, wondering what could have been or should have been. The lyrics “You’ve got me with nothing to win, and nothing left to lose” perfectly represented the despair and isolation I felt during certain periods of that otherwise happy time-frame.
“Bullet the Blue Sky” takes on the oppressor and aggressor many saw in the United States, particularly in the heated region of central America at this time. Every story has two sides, but there is plenty of truth to the unnecessarily excessive displays of force this song references.
Oddly enough, unlike many albums, the consensus favorite songs on this record for me and my friends in Greeley at the time, were the relatively unsung tracks that composed the last song of side one and the first song of side two. “Running to Stand Still” is an emotional blockbuster of a sad song, based in classic U2 fashion off of two simple chords on the piano, highlighting the tragic grip of heroin. Unfortunately, this would only serve as a haunting preview of times to come in the music world during the next decade. “Red Hill Mining Town” is a more up-tempo rocker, but equally stunning in its performance. We all loved the power of Edge’s guitar during the bridge, and to this day, these remain my two favorite tracks on the entire record.
The next two tracks, “In God’s Country” and “Trip Through Your Wires” were both good enough to be lead singles on many records, yet they got lost a bit within all of the other powerhouse songs on side one. I particularly love the rhythm section and Bono’s harmonica on “Trip Through Your Wires”, and although I don’t think I have mentioned it yet, Bono’s vocal performance on this song and this entire album, really elevated him to superstar status. Always dramatic, but flavored with soft whispers, growling power and angelic falsetto as needed, he is outstanding on this record, and he also did a brilliant job with all of the lyrics.
While I didn’t love “Exit”, as noted above, the other two of the last three songs, “One Tree Hill” and “Mothers of the Disappeared” both serve as intense and emotionally gripping songs addressing the loss of life of a close friend and the anguished hopelessness of having a child disappear without reason or explanation. The album ends on the same roll of energy that it began with, and it is amazing to hear how advanced this record is, even with their raw beginnings fully littered with great, if simple, tracks by comparison.
For several years, “The Joshua Tree” was a near daily fixture in my life, and the live performances and shared listens with friends only served to reinforce how much I love this record. I didn’t need to listen to this album today to write this blog, but I’m sure glad that I did.