The Joshua Tree is not only U2’s defining moment as a band, but one of the defining albums in rock history. It was a perfect storm of every element peaking at the right time, a culmination of experiences from four studio albums and relentless touring. It’s hard to overstate just what a big deal it is for the band. If you asked someone to name five U2 songs, there’s a good chance at least three of them would be from The Joshua Tree. Nearly thirty years later, its shadow still looms over everything the band has done. They would reach these heights again, but they have never been able to top it.
At some point while touring for The Unforgettable Fire, U2 was introduced to older musical influences like the blues and classic rock. That the band hadn’t really touched on these influences shows their uniqueness, but it betrays a lot of insularity in how they wrote. Their newfound affection for blues, gospel, and older rock sounds is embedded deeply into The Joshua Tree, and not just musically. The themes of hope, despair, isolation, violence, and wilderness are clearly informed by the American West. The danger was always that such sonic and thematic ambitions could drown out everything U2 was up to this point, and indeed that would happen on the next album. But for right now, The Joshua Tree never feels overheated in its appropriation of these sounds. It folds them into the anthems and sweeping statements U2 was already known for, giving them depth and resonance. It’s a little like switching from a TV screen to an enormous cinema. The canvas is far bigger than anything that came before.
It’s here that we see just how important The Unforgettable Fire was to U2, especially the production and creative guidance of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. Without that knowledge of how to work in a more nuanced fashion, they could use those flourishes to songs that were more conventional. Very little of The Joshua Tree feels strident or facile, and that starts with the production. It took me several listens before I realized how much gospel was in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” but when you hear it it’s unmistakable. “Running To Stand Still” embraces harmonica and slide guitar in a way might have been cheesy if it weren’t so understated. Only “Bullet The Blue Sky” pushes the envelope of being overwrought, but it has enough muscle behind it that it can overcome its own pretense. On other tracks, like “Where The Streets Have No Name,” they are able to drag in all of those moody elements before exploding into a joyous passion that might be one of the great album openers.
It helps that Bono’s lyrics took a giant leap forward going into The Joshua Tree. Up to this point U2’s lyrics had an extemporaneous feel, like they were going with ideas as they got them. You can especially see this on October and parts of The Unforgettable Fire, notably “Elvis Presley and America.” They are more suggestive of a broader mood than anything specific. Here everything is far more specific, with a much stronger sense of location and purpose. It’s the lyrics that elevate songs like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” from navel-gazing to something more universal. He’s also able to bring specific settings and situations into something personal, especially on “Red Hill Mining Town” and “Mothers Of The Disappeared.”
U2 albums tend to be front-loaded with the big singles, and that is certainly the case with The Joshua Tree. The first three songs are all among the biggest singles the band would ever record, and “Bullet The Blue Sky” has been a concert staple even if it was never released by itself. Those four songs are so popular that one could be forgiven for never wanting to hear them again. But the miracle of this album is how good the remaining seven songs are. It might be the strongest batch of songs U2 ever released. “Running To Stand Still” is one of my favorite U2 songs, heartbreaking and filled with quiet sadness. “Red Hill Mining Town” was good enough that it was almost released as a single. “One Tree Hill” has what might be one of the greatest codas of any track U2 ever released. And the knock-out punch of the menacing “Exit” and the mournful “Mothers Of The Disappeared” gets me every time. The squalling harmonica of “Trip Through Your Wires” is distinctive and punchy. The weakest track is perhaps “In God’s Country,” but that’s still a terrific lyric, and was even released as a single itself.
Approaching The Joshua Tree today, it feels like one of those albums that earned every ounce of the hype that surrounds it, like Who’s Next and Thriller. I know people who can’t stand U2, but acknowledge what a good album The Joshua Tree is. It’s U2 firing on all cylinders, every good idea elevated and no space wasted. In 50 years it will be the artistic statement that U2 is best known for, and it deserves all of that attention.
Into The Heart
In which Nate explores his personal connection to each U2 album.
It’s always been a two-horse race between which is my favorite U2 album, The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby. I think the latter was the early leader but as I’ve gotten older I’ve appreciated the more roots-oriented approach on the former. Part of my renewed interest was based on the 2007 remastered CD, the only U2 remaster I bought. Hearing the album in such high quality made a big difference, but even better were the B-sides on the second disc. They are easily the strongest B-sides in U2’s career, and songs like “Sweetest Thing” and “Spanish Eyes” are better than a lot of songs that U2 has released as singles.
From The Sky Down
In which Nate ranks all of U2’s albums in order of his favorites.
1. The Joshua Tree
3. The Unforgettable Fire
5. Under A Blood Red Sky