U2 – The Joshua Tree

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 2)

This album was huge. I think there was a year in high school when, on any given day, at least three kids were wearing this concert t-shirt. Suddenly, everybody loved U2. Kids, adults, critics, mainstream press. The Joshua Tree sold over 10,000,000 copies in the U.S. The album struck the right balance in many ways:  artsy but still rock; socially conscious without being preachy; moody while still loud; spiritual but not overtly religious; a celebration of America’s mythology but from an outsider’s perspective. Some of my love for it has waned – it lacks the personal resonance for me that a lot of the best music offers – but I still like it a lot. I wish I could have gone to the concert.

What I Think of This Album

There is no serious debate that this is the best U2 album. Cinematic and compelling, the band turned The Unforgettable Fire inside out for this follow-up. Sporting a much more organic sound, The Joshua Tree” retained the spaciousness of the previous album as well as its textures, but avoided any true experimentation. Shit, “Running to Stand Still” is basically “Bad,part two.

Starting with some frankly weird acoustic bluesy string bends, “Running” is at heart a piano ballad, lovely in its delicacy and affecting in its starkness. The introduction of Larry Mullen, Jr.’s rumbling, oceanic drums and Bono’s falsetto crooning add drama and depth. There are shades of Lou Reed in Bono’s spoken delivery. The band appropriates folk protest music on “Red Hill Mining Town,” which incorporates gospel sounds as well. Similarly, “Trip Through Your Wires” combines gospel with the blues, with an interesting autoharp part played by producer Daniel Lanois and a respectable harmonica from Bono. The yelping from Bono, though, I could do without.

The elegiac “One Tree Hill” – somehow both a tribute to a deceased friend and a political number about the Pinochet regime in Chile – depends a great deal on Mullen, Jr.’s skillful drumming and the alternating use of Edge’s guitar and a separate string arrangement. Closer “Mothers of the Disappeared” is the track that most evokes the sound of previous album, with a gauzy, hypnotic patina coating the gentle undulations, anchored by a fuzzy drone of a rhythm loop; it is a stunning, moving piece of work paying tribute to the lost generations of Latin American children, murdered by their own governments (with the backing of the U.S.).

Then, of course, there are the hits. Notably, these anthems manage to avoid bombast and instead unfurl into open and expansive soundscapes while remaining intimate and personal. “Where the Streets Have No Name” relies on an impressionistic swell of keyboards complemented by the Edge’s delayed guitar arpeggio, augmented by the insistent contributions of bassist Adam Clayton and Mullen, Jr., and capped off by a truly excellent performance from Bono. Really, a perfect opening track. The band doubles down with the spiritual questioning of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” bringing in a considerable soul/gospel element. Not to be overlooked are the slippery bass part and another fine performance behind the kit from Mullen, Jr. Finally, the tormented romantic troubles of “With or Without You” are made poignant by the Edge’s ghostly work (plus a repeating riff and a closing pattern) and Bono’s skilled use of his vocal range. All of these songs are verifiable smashes, and the fact that they don’t overshadow the other strong selections is a testament to the quality of the album.

Honestly, though, there are weaknesses. The harried and shimmering “In God’s Country” is almost U2-by-the-numbers, presaging the overbearing schtick of Rattle and Hum, but managing to not stick out too badly from the rest of the album. There is no positive spin to “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which is AWFUL, and would be reintroduced in an even worse – somehow – live version the following year. “Exit” is downright embarrassing, not to mention simply boring.

Brian Eno co-produced with Lanois, and Flood (Depeche Mode, Erasure, Nine Inch Nails, PJ Harvey) engineered; Steve Lillywhite mixed some of the tracks.

Tidbit:  Kirsty MacColl (spouse at the time of Lillywhite) sequenced the album, being instructed only on what the first and final songs should be.

The Best Thing About This Album

I am going to give credit to Larry Mullen, Jr., whose drumming I never really paid attention to before.

Release Date

March, 1987

The Cover Art

Anton Corbijn again, this time trying his hand at a panoramic camera, and the story is he didn’t know how to use it, resulting in a sharp background and a blurry foreground (at least on the original CD release). The cover art for the original vinyl/CD/cassette was different for each format, but reissues of the CD used the vinyl cover. The vinyl art is much better than the original CD art (which is a blurry, vertically distorted crop of the art shown here, and with a lot less negative space at the top and bottom margins), more closely making a visual connection between the image and the music.

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