The Joshua Tree reveals an understanding of the American archetype.
U2 has done more than pick over the bones of a favorite recording with this deluxe reissue of The Joshua Tree. The band has fully transported to a time when the future remained as open as the desert sky.
By 1987 U2 had tasted success on American shores. A 1983 appearance at the US Festival, the EP Under a Blood Red Sky and a live video capturing the group at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks venue issued the following year had begun setting the stage for the Irish quartet’s taking of North America. But there were hiccups along the way. The Unforgettable Fire, issued in 1984, should have been the band’s breakthrough, but its sometimes clumsy production and lack of commercial material (save “Pride (In The Name of Love)”) proved a step backward. Yes, there had been an appearance at Live Aid and rumblings that The Edge was the future of guitar in the wake of Edward Van Halen. Yet neither would secure U2’s future on either an American or global scale.
By mid-decade, mainstream rock was in desperate need of a superstar band. There were solo artists galore: Michael Jackson, Prince, Springsteen, Madonna and Sting, freed from the bondage of The Police in 1984, were inescapable, but they stood for the individual. Bands, representing bonds of brotherhood and creative foils, were another matter. Dire Straits had released the multiplatinum Brothers in Arms, but no one was confusing that lot with Kiss or The Beatles, and besides, its members were old enough to be your dad. Duran Duran, good as the Birmingham group had been, had splintered and alienated some of its core fans. Furthermore, the Straits muttered “faggot” in a hit song, but most of the audience didn’t exactly get what the song was about and, in the ‘80s, using the epithet seemed as safe as the casual misogyny in a Sammy Hagar video.
The music world needed that essential intersection of rebellion and commodity. If there was a mainstream band poised to seize that opportunity, it was U2. Its members were young (enough), with an intensity, profundity and Old World good looks, all the things a band needs to be important. There was even a heavy dose of spirituality, and its leader’s rep as a seeker, searching low and high, has almost never hurt.
Bono had learned a thing or two from observing charismatic religious and political leaders. He could smooch babies and attend pancake feeds with the best of ‘em if he needed to. Mom felt safe with him, and even if you didn’t like what he had to say, you could not be immune to his charms. This was a decade about image: Bruce, the working class stiff; Madonna, the embodiment of carnal and spiritual desire; Bono, the rocker who didn’t just talk about world hunger but who actually traveled to Ethiopia to help with famine relief.
The annals of rock history are full of bands that claim they “didn’t have a plan” for success, and that may have been true of U2 at first. But by 1987, the group had proven itself capable of masterful strategy.
The Joshua Tree reveals an understanding of the American archetype: Sad eyes, crooked crosses and the ache and frustration of carnal/spiritual desire. You can live in a world that rewards fidelity and devotion, the songs seemed to say, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t left with questions about whether it’s all worth it. Los Lobos had issued its meditation on the American dream, By the Light of the Moon and seen it met with a small but appreciative audience. It was, perhaps too direct in its targets, too specific to the American dream. Bono and friends argued that the American dream had gone global.
This was something the (mostly) Canadian outfit The Band had done before the Dubliners. Robbie Robertson and company evoked the follies of American history, its hubris amid crumbling mansions, with an authenticity that many of its own citizens couldn’t muster. A glance at Joshua’s stark black and white cover conjures memories of The Band’s second, self-titled effort and its exploration of these same dreams and myths.
Some have argued that U2’s music and vision is contrived, but there’s an earnestness running throughout the album that few if any bands in America at that moment (save Los Lobos) could have conjured. U2 went whole hog. Country music crept into “With or Without You,” a song that, 30 years on, sounds remarkably spontaneous and close to the vein. “Trip Through Your Wires” seems to have been bottled from the western landscape, late at night, and let loose onto the tape. “Bullet the Blue Sky” burns with an intensity that heavy metal from the era wishes it could have summoned. It is as a humiliating kick in the crotch to the masters of war, and it still stings.
After some of this glory had faded and U2 had disappeared up its own arse, Bono would say that his group was re-applying for the job of best rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. The Joshua Tree is the awkward, impassioned first interview for that job. It’s all there. The clammy hands, jittery conversation and knowledge that the gig has already been delivered the moment you walked in the door simply because none of the other applicants bothered to show up. It is filled with the sweeping passion of naïveté.
Everyone knows this album’s reputation, even if the sizzle and excitement of its initial appearance are now larger than the music itself. It can be hard to hear records like this for what they actually are. Not so with The Joshua Tree. It remains a revelation, not only in U2’s oeuvre but in the lexicon of rock ‘n’ roll, as it stands for a moment when rock decided to have a conscience, to open its umbrella wide and take a stand after falling victim to its own clichés. Yes, there were singer-songwriters out there fighting these fights, but U2 was the band to fly the flag and remind us that we are not alone.
All that went into the making of The Joshua Tree, all the labor and fruits thereof come to light in this new edition via a live gig culled from Madison Square Garden in ’87. The strong performances suggest that U2’s reputation as a lesser live band seems unwarranted. There is a hungry attack to these songs and a spontaneity live shows rarely have.
Eight of the songs in that set come from Joshua Tree, a suggestion of the record’s popularity and the band’s commitment to it. Imagine any contemporary band trying to sell its latest wares at such a volume these days. The volume isn’t what matters, though–it’s the quality, and you can hear Hewson and friends strutting their confidence through “In God’s Country” and the often-overlooked “Exit.”
A series of remixes from Jacknife Lee, Brian Eno and Steve Lillywhite give us a different vision of the songs and remind us that few bands issue remix versions of their songs that positively transform the originals the way that U2 can. “Bullet the Blue Sky” becomes more abrasive, landing closer to Throbbing Gristle or Psychic TV than Johnny Cash and Jimi Hendrix. “Running to Stand Still,” one of U2’s all-time best, becomes more haunting and emotionally taxing, Bono’s lyrics and vocals transformed into a stark prayer.
The round of B-sides such as “Sweetest Thing” and “Silver Gold” (featured prominently in Rattle and Hum the following year) are as good as anything that landed on the record itself, while “Spanish Eyes” deserves to have a more prominent place in U2’s recorded output even if it’s half-cooked. That is and has always been one of the joys of this band. In its smallest doses, the brilliance inspires, and suggests that U2, even when it adds a free album to your iTunes library, is the last great mainstream band of the ‘80s still roaming the earth today.