Ever since U2 first set foot in the states on their first US tour in the winter of 1980, the four young men from suburban Dublin had been enamoured by the larger-than-life quality presented by America, both for its sheer size and scope and deep-rooted sense of possibility. They would elect to return on at least an annual basis for the following few years, as their cult fanbase grew in steady proportion with their musical aspirations.
It was a meeting with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards during 1985’s Sun City anti-apartheid collaboration, however – and Bono’s embarrassment over his lack of education regarding the Stones’ beloved blues music – that made the band finally decided to completely immerse themselves in the country’s cultural and musical history, becoming students of the great American roots music tradition and, in the case of Van Morrison, Bob Dylan and Richards himself, befriending their newfound heroes.
The result, 1987’s ‘The Joshua Tree’, remains in the minds of many fans the greatest and most ambitious album in the band’s long and winding catalogue, as well as one of the most iconic records of its era; melding the atmospheric experiments of 1984’s Brian Eno-led ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ with rootsy Americana, they managed to create an expansive, cinematic journeyman record that was wise beyond the members’ years and quite unlike anything previously heard on the radio.
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The record begins with what may be U2’s finest hour as a stadium rock band, the towering ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, which saw the band re-visit their Christian faith in the most explicit way since the ill-fated ‘October’. Basically a hymn rechannelled for the MTV era, the song sees Bono at his yearning best, pleading to a higher power – and it’s never quite clear whether he’ addressing his lover or his maker – to allow him into his own personal heaven, be it metaphorical or literal, over a slow-burning backdrop of church organs, glittering guitars and driving bass. ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ continues the spiritual theme, with the band taking influence from gospel music and merging the age-old twelve bar blues format with their own sweeping sonic footprint.
Lead single ‘With or Without You’, meanwhile, is a classic torch song and a true masterclass in minimalism, anchored by Adam Clayton’s subdued four-note bass riff and a ghostly guitar line courtesy of a contraption known as the ‘infinite guitar’. Forced to follow such an affecting, swelling climax of wordless wails and vocalisations from Bono, any other guitarist would have burst into a solo in the ‘November Rain’ vein, however The Edge’s dignified genius shines through in the gracious three-chord strumming that fades out with the track.
‘The Joshua Tree’s first three tracks are all still classic rock radio mainstays and have deservedly taken root in the wider public consciousness, however what makes the album so remarkable thirty years on is its ability work as a complete, cohesive entity whilst touching on a diverse range of influences and themes. And whilst the angry, militant pacifism of ‘War’ was the band’s first flirtation with political statements, this record also marked a new era of socially conscious lyricism on Bono’s part, inspired by the band’s involvement with the Conspiracy of Hope tour and Live Aid initiatives, as well as the singer’s own formative experiences and then-recent immersion in the good, the bad and the ugly of American culture.
The dreamy, country-tinged piano ballad ‘Running to Stand Still’ is one such area of new ground broken by the band, and deals with the Dublin heroin epidemic by chronicling the troubled existence of a fictional couple living in the city’s notorious Ballymun apartment building (“I see seven towers, but I only see one way out,” the protagonist notes wearily).
The track alternates between an endless, hypnotic loop of two simple chords, eventually building wearily to a gorgeous, swirling finale before abruptly ending on a hushed note, a move which along with the lyrics – one of most poetic of the band’s career – touchingly conveys the quiet tragedy of being trapped in a prison of one’s own making, as well as the harsh reality of living a life defined by an all-consuming love-hate relationship with artificial euphoria.
For ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’, Bono reportedly told The Edge to “put El Salvador through an amplifier”, resulting in another musical departure and easily the most aggressive U2 song up to that point, full of discordant waves of guitar that sound variously like molten lava and bombs dropping overhead, a lolloping funk-rock bassline.
Bono snarls his words, venting his frustration with the US’ military involvement in the Salvadorian Civil War by ironically juxtaposing romantic Americana tropes such as jazz saxophonists with violent imagery of fighter planes and burned crosses, whilst delivering the “outside it’s America” mantra of the spoken-word interlude with a particularly mocking tone. The fiercely political track has since become a staple fixture in U2’s live sets throughout the years, and has been repurposed to highlight and denounce other problematic issues, such as handgun violence or religious terrorism.
Elsewhere, ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ is perhaps the record’s hidden gem and is as anthemic and heartfelt as anything ever performed by the band, despite later being dismissed by Larry Mullen Jr as ‘overproduced and under-written’. The lyric was written about the British miner’s strike of 1984, and effectively captures the sense of hopelessness felt around some quarters of the UK at the time following the collapse and decay of swathes of once-thriving industrial towns. The song was never performed live and shelved as the album’s second single in favour of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, the reasons cited for which have varied at different times between being too vocally demanding, and its mid-tempo nature making it unsuitable for the band’s famously electric live shows.
Whilst ‘The Joshua Tree’ was a record that embraced socio-economic commentary, Bono’s growing confidence as a lyricist also meant the band was able to incorporate a number of more personal themes, for example the soothing, gospel-like ‘One Tree Hill’, which was written in part as a tribute to the late Greg Carroll, a New Zealand native and friend of the band who passed away in a motorbike accident prior to the recording of the album.
Despite its sombre subject matter, the track plays as spiritual, almost giddy celebration of life, and lyrically references the Maori belief in the eternal existence of the soul over a bed of skipping, Polynesian-inspired guitars and a restrained yet upbeat rhythm section. “I’ll see you again when the stars fall from the sky…” Bono assures, his initially gentle croon gaining urgency with every passing verse, whilst the gentle optimism of its “you run like a river runs to the sea” coda makes for a more touching send-off than perhaps any morose elegy could have.
On reflection, the record’s entire premise was a brave shot in the dark – a young Irish band taking it upon themselves to make ‘the great American album’ – but thanks to sheer quality of the song writing, and the genuine respect and reverence the group gave to their thematic source material, the result was an astounding commercial and critical success. It marked the point where U2 set out to discover America, and in the process accidentally stumbled upon the culmination of the sound they’d been working towards since ‘Boy’ – which, in turn, made them the biggest band on the planet for the remainder of the decade and beyond.