Albums A to Z: The Joshua Tree

Only two posts ago in this series, I said that I owned only two 1980s albums that were popular: Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Tom Petty’s solo album, Full Moon Fever.

Oh, and one of the 25+ million copies of The Joshua Tree that have been sold worldwide.

U2, The Joshua Tree

U2, The Joshua TreeHow’d I forget this one? I’m not about to shell out $200 to buy tickets the next time Bono and the boys swing through Minneapolis-St. Paul, but I’m a big enough U2 fan to have (a) bought six of their albums and (b) once convinced my colleagues on Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture team to let me bring my guitar to class and play a shortened version of the “U2charist” at the beginning of our semester-ending discussion of the Bono-founded (Red) campaign. And, twenty-five years after it was released, The Joshua Tree is still pretty much everyone’s pick for the best U2 album.

(Contrarians: feel free to make a case for War, Achtung Baby, or one of the 2000s albums, but I’ll delete any comments praising Rattle and Hum or PopDon’t be that guy.)

Still, reading up on the album, I found myself questioning John Piscarella’s review in Spin: “There isn’t a bad song on the record…. Every one has a hook.”

C’mon. Not a lemon? Even Revolver had two too many George songs, after all.

So I pulled The Joshua Tree off the rack to listen for the first time in years. I’ll skip right to track four, since it really can go without (too much) saying that “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You” are fantastic songs: three of the best singles in pop-rock history, and probably the strongest back-to-back-to-back tracks to open any album in my collection.

Then “Bullet the Blue Sky”… Maybe it’s that this seems like a case where biblical imagery (“…driving nails into souls on the tree of pain”; “Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome”) was just another paint on Bono’s lyrical palette rather than an expression of a spiritual seeker who would later praise Eugene Peterson for The Message, but I’m less gripped by this critique of American empire than others. At the same time, it’s such a drastic change from the preceding three songs — musically and lyrically — that it can’t help but grab your attention. And it reminded me that The Edge’s guitar can slash and burn as easily as it can sound like Heaven (“Where the Streets…”).

Likewise, “Running to Stand Still” shows Edge belatedly dipping his toe into the folk-blues that were headwaters of rock and punk, but more impressively for me, Bono shows himself capable of writing a story of tortured love that’s less anthemic than “With or Without You” (no couple is going to dance to this one at their wedding reception) but more acutely observed a character study. If it’s actually about heroin (“She will suffer the needle chill / She is running to stand still”), it’s one of the better drug songs from the period.

Similarly, “Red Hill Mining Town” is far from the only Eighties song to be inspired by the 1984-1985 coal miners strike in Britain, but it wastes no bile on Margaret Thatcher and instead finds slivers of hope and beauty even as love is “slowly stripped away” from people with “faces frozen (still) against the wind.”

The country and blues moves of “In God’s Country” and “Trip Through Your Wires” don’t move me as much as I’d expect, but maybe that’s just because they hint at what’s about to come with Rattle and Hum. But if The Joshua Tree is indeed U2’s “America” album, then “In God’s Country” is a centerpiece, the title phrase easy to read as an ironic comment on the Reagan era.

At the same time, it could as easily be taken more at face value — a reminder that if the American dream includes “Hope faith, her vanity,” then God offers a slightly but significantly different triad to all people, including “the sons of Cain” wandering deserts in need of “new dreams tonight.” I’m not as excited by the harmonica-laced “Trip Through Your Wires,” but these two songs do suggest that it’s possible to see U2 as a Christian band, rather than — as The Avett Brothers said about themselves in a recent Relevant magazine cover story — Christians who play in a band.

In that vein (and skipping over “One Tree Hill,” which suffers only by comparison to the album’s earlier anthems — though it’s certainly a heartfelt elegy for one of U2’s roadies), “Exit” is an important addition to the U2 canon, though I doubt one that they play all that often in concert, since it’s such a creature of the studio (one take of a jam that producer Brian Eno later edited). (According to U2gigs.com, “Exit” was played throughout the 1987 Joshua Tree tour, but not much thereafter. The first four songs on the album have been performed 5-6 times as often as “Exit.”) The nerviest, most jagged instrumentals on The Joshua Tree back Bono’s attempt to enter the mind of a murderer (“He put his hands in the pocket / His finger on the steel / The pistol weighed heavy / his heart he could feel / Was beating, beating…”). It’s not in the class of a murder ballad like “Stagger Lee” (though it would make an interesting medley with Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman”) or Robert Johnson’s frightening “32-20 Blues,” but it’s a welcome reminder that there’s little reason “to reach out / and touch the flame / where the streets have no name” or to “believe in the Kingdom Come” if sin weren’t present within each of us.

In that sense, “Exit” also makes Bono’s critiques of U.S. foreign policy (on “Bullet the Blue Sky” and album closer “Mothers of the Disappeared”) ring truer. While other politically progressive singer-songwriters condemned American conduct in Central America and other parts of the late Cold War world, Bono acknowledged that impulses to violence and injustice are not limited to states and elites. (Michael Stipe seems like the obvious contrast here: on Document, for example, I’m not sure that he ever turns his critical eye on himself — depending on what you make of “The One I Love,” I guess.) Of “Exit” Bono said:

It is all very well to address America and the violence that is an aggressive foreign policy but to really understand that you have to get under the skin of your own darkness, the violence we all contain within us. Violence is something I have quite a bit about. I have a side of me which, in a corner, can be very violent. It’s the least attractive thing in anyone and I wanted to own up to that.

Release Date: 1987

Three Favorite Tracks: the first three songs, but I’ll include “In God’s Country” as the strongest track from the remainder of the album

Other Nominees: Ryan Adams & The Cardinals, Jacksonville City Nights; Steve Earle, Jerusalem.

<<I is for I Feel Alright


One thought on “Albums A to Z: The Joshua Tree

  1. My favorite U2 album, although Achtung Baby is a worthy rival. Trip Through your Wires and One Tree Hill are underrated gems on the b-side. In God’s Country is almost as good as the 1-2-3 punch on the a-side.

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