U2's The Joshua Tree might just be the most gut-wrenching feel-good rock album in existence.
I know, that probably sounds like a contradictory statement. Maybe a bit of a superficial one, too. I mean, anyone who's listened closely to this classic album (and it is a classic by pretty much universal standards) could easily tell you that it's not an album about feeling good. If anything, these Irish lads had captured a poignant sense of longing and dissatisfaction with the last full studio album that they put out in the 1980's. Perhaps more than ever in the band's career, this was a record that exemplified our overall impression of Bono and the boys - earnest, passionate, aching for something more to cure the unnamed pain in the human soul. But we don't always get that feeling when we listen to this record, do we? There's a certain joy that comes from it instead, fighting ferociously against the desperate lyrics. Memories can be a powerful thing. And I think that for a lot of us, our memories of The Joshua Tree might mean more than the songs themselves. Which is why I feel compelled to take another look at it. After so many years of being acquainted with this album on the surface through various hit songs and cursory runs through at least the front half of the album on road trips, I think I'm finally ready to form a coherent opinion on the album as a whole.
What, did you expect me to say that The Joshua Tree was merely OK? I suppose I used to have that opinion. Those were the days when I was a less patient listener. I suppose there was something about the immediacy of the album's most popular tracks - the ringing of guitars filling the vastness of space, the thrillingly clear bumping of bass that has been imitated ad nauseum ever since, and the passionate vocals singing choruses that would stick with me for years even though I claimed not to like any of that "secular" music for so long - something about those songs left an indelible impression upon my young mind. Something that the remainder of the album couldn't hope to live up to. But it was never fair of me to write off the non-hit material as merely "okay". There's a lot of good stuff hidden in the cracks here that perhaps a lot of us forget when we don't have the record playing. This combination of massive hits and subtler songs that still have a lot to them makes The Joshua Tree an obvious entry point for getting into U2. While my personal favorite U2 albums were put out during their 90's electronic phase, this one has definitely stood the test of time, and it remains a classic deserving of the praise heaped onto it by fans and even casual admirers of the band. It sounds as fresh today, as it rapidly approaches its seventeenth birthday. That's a feat that few bands could ever hope to accomplish.
For the few who didn't know this, The Joshua Tree is named after a place - Joshua Tree National Park - in the desert near Palm Springs, California, where the crooked, defiant trees that are the park's namesake grow amidst a surprisingly colorful landscape of sand and rocks. Having been there recently, I can easily see how much of U2's lyrics were inspired by its desolate beauty. The very concept of a desert would probably seem strange to a person from Ireland, which is known for being extremely rainy and therefore lush and green. In a similar fashion, this album takes doubt and pain and despair and explains to those of us who come from more comfortable places in life how an unexpected beauty can spring up in the midst of them. It's not stated so much in words, but rather more in the specific-to-universal transformation that those words undergo as Bono is singing them. You can always tell he's writing about something very specific, and yet there's a part of most of us that latches on in a way that we might not latch on to most songwriters. That's the best explanation I can come up with, anyway. So much of what's great about this album lies in the intangibles. I'm convinced that it's not simply considered to be the best rock album of all time by so many people just because the music blows them away .
Though there is that, too. From the warm wash of keyboard tones and ringing guitars that opens the album, to the detached and alien nature of its closing song, it's clear that these guys know how to ride a wave to full crescendo and then fall off into a quiet, meditative reflection without missing a beat. Only a few flattened moments that seem quieter than they should be take away from the rush of that experience. And that's really not the drawback that I once saw it as. It's just an observation that it would have been near impossible for the band to sustain such a high level of passion throughout every single song.
So away we go, down memory lane. I'm willing to bet that so many of you already own this album, that my purpose in reviewing it is less to convince you to buy it, and more to encourage you to go listen to it - all of it - one more time with your full attention.
Where the Streets Have No Name
The city's a flood, and our love turns to rust
We're beaten and blown by the wind, trampled in dust...
Man... who could forget the glorious intro to this album. A slow, quiet wash of keyboards fades in gradually, ominously settling into a familiar chord sequence, but holding the rest of the song at bay until close to a full minute in, when The Edge's glorious guitar effects call the rest of the band into action. In what has got to be one of the most glorious moments in the history of rock music, Larry Mullen's drums and Adam Clayton's thick bass take off running, creating a momentum that is sustained throughout almost five euphoric minutes. Despite the wall of sound, there's a feeling of open space around the listener as Bono begins to sing, relating an unquenchable desire to slip away into an unnamed place away from the crowded city, where no one can find him and where he is not "beaten and blown by the wind, trampled in dust". For a song about being downtrodden, it sure sounds triumphant, doesn't it? That's probably because it resonates with the promise of either a romantic or spiritual getaway - the song has probably had millions of valid interpretations over the years. It's a straightforward piece with a powerful melody, and yet it isn't without its subtleties - the bit at the beginning and the end where The Edge is playing in 3/4 time even though the song is in 4/4 always baffled me. But the outcome is nothing less than pure beauty - it's my favorite U2 song out of all of their 80's work, and quite possibly one of the best songs released in the 1980's, period. (Not that I really have the authority to make such a statement, since I hate most 80's music, but anyway...)
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for
I believe in the kingdom come
When all the colors will bleed into one, bleed into one
Well, yes I'm still running...
Among the many things that seemed strange to me when I was first exposed to The Joshua Tree was this song. Coming on the heels of such a kinetic opener, it seemed weird to have a medium-paced, almost relaxed rhythm driving the second song. Obviously I hadn't given myself a chance to connect with the lyrics yet - but even if you were to exclude that aspect of the song, there's still something driving about the way that the steady drum beat drives along - "Thump, thump, thump, BAM!" - while the bass bumps along in the background - "Bum, bum, bum, ba-dum-bum". (Yes, I'm quoting instruments now; I have officially gone insane.) On top of it all, we get a famous (and somewhat infamous lyric) where Bono, the zealous rock singer who has never been afraid to lay his Christian faith out on the table, confessing that despite all that he believes and all that he has experienced of God, he still isn't satisfied. The response of some Christians to such a song was to assume that Bono was saying that Jesus Christ wasn't enough to give a person a fulfilling life. But those who had felt what Bono had felt - Christians and non-Christians alike - understood what he was trying to communicate through this confession. We humans can never experience enough. We can have everything we think we wanted, and a bunch of things we didn't even know we needed, and still have an unnamable hunger for something more. Those who know God can never know all of who God is while here on this Earth, after all. It's amazing that, for a such with such explicitly religious lyrics ("You broke the bonds and You loosed the chains, carried the cross of all my shame"), that such a wide population related so deeply to the song. It kind of flies in the face of the more recent idea among Christian rock bands that they have to sneak into the mainstream by peppering their songs with secret Jesus messages. Sometimes you just have to sing about what you know, and people will respect you for that, even if that's not their personal belief. U2 has given us a timeless example here. (And for the record, this version is way better than the "Gospel version" that showed up on Rattle and Hum the following year.)
With or Without You
Sleight of hand and twist of fate
On a bed of nails she makes me wait
And I wait without you...
Capping of the triple threat of ubiquitous massive hits that starts off this record is this, perhaps the most famous of U2's songs (which of course means that this thing got insane amounts of overplay in its heyday). Even if you were a kid like I was when this song came out, and even if you don't know jack squat about U2, trust me, you know this song. If you were born after 1987, then you were probably born knowing this song, by way of heredity from your parents, who were unable to escape it. That four-note bass line is one of those things that just ingrains itself into a person's memory. I remember hearing it, along with Bono's husky voice, on the radio during a summer road trip in the late 80's, and my parents were arguing about who the singer was. (My Mom thought it was Neil Diamond.) Anyway, for a song with such an intimidating track record, it's actually one of U2's most enigmatic. I mean, what's it about? Sure, you've got your basic, clever line about not being able to live "with or without you", which probably sums up a lot of men's attitudes about difficult women. But is that really it - just an ironic little love song? Or is there more to the guy who waits on a bed of nails and the woman who gives herself away? I don't think I'll ever know. Much like "Where the Streets Have No Name" and "One", this one's got multiple interpretations up the wazoo. So I'll just have to settle for further pondering it while I once again find myself astounded at the building, and ultimately outpouring, of passion that occurs at the climax of this song. The funny thing is, it's the same darn four chords all the way through, and yet it never seems repetitive. How did U2 manage to pull that off so frequently in their early days?
Bullet the Blue Sky
And he's peeling off those dollar bills and slappin' 'em down
"One hundred! Two hundred!"
And I can see those fighter planes...
The most obviously political song on The Joshua Tree comes in the form of this battering ram of a rock song - say what you want, but in my world, this stuff is considered "classic rock". Starting off with a drum cadence that would have made Larry Mullen famous if he and his band weren't already, and carrying it throughout the entire song, this insanely repetitive number has everything going for it. It's not the traditional approach (at least, up until this point it wasn't) for U2 - sure, you've got your elementary chord progression (which I think is like two chords repeated throughout the whole song) and your apocalyptic lyrics about war, but the song also finds Bono belting out a sweet "Oooooooooh!" in the falsetto that would characterize him during the 90's, which makes for a nice counterpoint to his lyrics. And you've got a strangely poetic rant that takes up the second half of the song, stringing together what might seem like non-sequitur phrases into a fiery protest while The Edge swoops down and takes shots at the rest of the band with his menacing guitar lines. It's friggin' brilliant, man.
Running to Stand Still
Sweet the sin, bitter taste in my mouth
I see seven towers, but I only see one way out...
At this point, having been assaulted by the biggest hits on the record, we now start to move toward that back half that isn't as well-known. Leading off the more "subtle" portion of the album is this gentle ballad, which takes its time to really register in the old memory banks. The lonely slide guitar intro is certainly memorable, but it seems kind of detached from the song in itself, which builds quietly on a foundation of piano and light percussion. At several moments the music and Bono's hushed vocals seem to be barely there. This and the self-contradictory lyrics ("You gotta cry without weeping/Talk without speaking/Scream without raising your voice") combine to create a hidden gem in the U2 catalogue. I've heard a rumor that it's actually about a heroin addict struggling to kick her habit - definitely darker material than a lot of casual U2 fans would be willing to deal with. While it's never been one of my personal favorites, mostly due to how frail and disjointed it feels in between the surrounding songs, I still enjoy it quite a bit, and the part near the end where the harmonica joins in is definitely an emotional highlight.
Red Hill Mining Town
The glass is cut, the bottle run dry
Our love runs cold, in the caverns of the night...
Sitting at the midpoint of the record is this song, a subtle but effective rocker that gets things moving again. Much like "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", this one settles for a more comfortable beat rather than being a full-on rocker - when I first heard it, I thought it was odd that the drums weren't going twice as fast as they were. The song as a whole is very workman-like, with the rhythm and the verses steadily doing their job while the choruses break out in an exasperated protest. "I'm hanging on, you're all that's left to hold on to", Bono cries out, and in between these simple choruses, he details the town mentioned in the song's title, a place where the sun drenches the land and people are working way too hard just to scrape out a living. It might not be an immediate standout on the album, but it has the feeling of being an important piece of an imaginary story, a relic of a forgotten desert civilization whose ruins the band stumbled across during their time in the desert.
In God's Country
Desert rose, dreamed I saw a desert rose
Dress torn in ribbons and in bows
Like a siren she calls to me...
The album briefly transitions back into upbeat mode for two wonderfully catchy and thoughtful tunes, the first of which is this quick, jangly little number, coming and going in a mere three minutes. A dual attack of acoustic and electric guitar is utilized here, and of course The Edge is laying on the delay effects as thick as he can, just to add to the shimmering aura of this little oasis in the desert. This seems to refer to a seduction of sorts - a desert rose, a naked flame, a hint of refreshment in the scorching heat. But then there's the unsettling imagery of the chorus - "Sleep comes like a drug in God's country. Sad eyes, crooked crosses in God's country." Is it all just a distraction, a golden calf to tempt wandering nomads who have lost interest in hearing the voice of their God? Don't ask me, man, I'm just sitting here playing air guitar.
Trip Through Your Wires
I was broken, bent out of shape
I was naked in the clothes you made...
Now here's a weird one for you - a drunken, bluesy romp complete with a feisty 6/8 drumbeat and a piercing harmonica. It certainly caught me off guard the first time through, because I was used to U2 doing the whole earnest, atmospheric thing. More than any other track on this album, they just seem to be having fun - I get visions of the guys sitting around a campfire, swaying back and forth, and singing and playing in unison. Of course, then I realize that The Edge is still up to his usual ringing guitar tricks, and figure that it would be kind of silly to have a guitar amp plugged in at a campfire. Oh well, it was a nice vision while it lasted. The song's still an insane amount of fun. The guys are still singing about temptation here, trying to figure out whether the person offering them food and drink and shelter is an "Angel or devil". Perhaps they've given in and they'll hate themselves for it in the morning - but for now, they're gonna hoot and holler and live it up through every second of this irresistible tune. You will sway from side to side uncontrollably when listening to this one. Resistance is futile.
One Tree Hill
I don't believe in painted roses, or bleeding hearts
While bullets rape the night of the merciful...
Okay, time to sober up and face life again. Despite its upbeat nature, this song is actually a pretty solemn one, offering a fond farewell to a friend who has passed away. I'm not sure exactly where "One Tree Hill" is, but it seems to be either the place where this person died, or his final resting place. As expected, U2's eulogy is a poetic one (at least, it's working better for me than "Kite" from All that You Can't Leave Behind), and the music remains subtle to fit it. The song underpinned by the repetitive plucking of two notes on the guitar, and some tinny-sounding percussion that would have fit in just fine on Achtung Baby. The song builds tension later on, with The Edge bringing in a grittier guitar song and Bono's vocals elevating to a piercing scream as he wails "Raining in your heart" over and over again, until the song finally comes to a sudden end.
His head, it felt heavy, as he cut across the land
A dog started crying, like a broken hearted man
At the howling wind...
You know what always really baffled me about this album? It's this song. More specifically, it's how the track begins with a slow, hymn-like coda that echoes the chorus of "One Tree Hill". Now I realize that the CD wasn't the initial format in which the album was released, and that there isn't a definite point on a cassette or LP at which one song ends and the next begins - there was no concept of "tracks" back then, as far as I know. But if I'm not mistaken, some versions of the CD have this little bit at the end of track 9. Weird, isn't it? Anyway, after that little bit fades off into the distance, there seems to be nothing but silence for ten or twenty seconds. Eventually you can hear strains of a song bleeding in, most notably some whispered vocals and the thumping of bass off in the distance, but man, this is one of those songs that just doesn't seem to be loud enough no matter how much you turn it up. It's all part of the mood, I'm sure, and before you know it, the drums and bass are approaching you like an oncoming train, loud as ever, and you're scrambling to turn the volume back down again. Then it all falls apart into a tangle of growling guitars and moody background noise, only to go through another slow increase of volume. It's chilling and compelling, if you're paying attention. The song is very dark, progressing "deeper into black, deeper into white" as it goes, and it seems to be about an individual, perhaps a normal person like you or I, being driven to the point of suicide. Scary. Ultimately, the recipe of sound works well, but I have to admit that the quieter points aren't my favorite moments on the record. It's just frustrating to not be able to hear what's going on - and I've pointed out similar things on a few other U2 albums as well.
Mothers of the Disappeared
Night hangs like a prisoner
Stretched over black and blue
Hear their heartbeat...
Those of you who thought that U2 had suddenly gone techno out of nowhere on their 90's albums need to pull out your copies of The Joshua Tree and listen all the way to the end. The final track on this famous album may well be one of its most overlooked - I certainly had no recollection of what it sounded like despite having heard the album a few times during college. It's very machinelike and desolate, almost stranding the listener in an alien landscape. This of course helps us to identify with the lost children that Bono is singing about. It's definitely a song that furthers a political cause - I believe there were some kidnappings going on in South America at the time, perpetrated by a government that he was speaking out against through this song. Comparative to the rest of the album, the lyrics are pretty minimal, but Bono definitely hit's a soft spots when he pleads with us to "Hear their heartbeats". It's a chilling way to end this desert saga, but an effective one nonetheless.
It's interesting how many layers are revealed when going back to listen more carefully to an album that I've perhaps glossed over to casually in the past. It's as if knowing how much everybody and their brother liked this thing gave me a license to let my brain go on auto-pilot when listening to it. Even now, having studied it more carefully over the past few weeks (and yes, it took me that long to get up the gumption to actually review it), I can tell that I don't know the half of what's going on in these songs. There's probably no single answer for half of 'em anyway. The Joshua Tree is an enigmatic prophet that seems to have a different story to tell to everyone who makes a pilgrimage to its desolate desert home. But I can tell you for sure that it's certainly a road trip worth taking.
Where the Streets Have No Name $2
I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking for $2
With or Without You $2
Bullet the Blue Sky $2
Running to Stand Still $1
Red Hill Mining Town $1.50
In God's Country $2
Trip Through Your Wires $2
One Tree Hill $1
Mothers of the Disappeared $1
CONCLUSION: Worth every penny at pretty much any price, though if you're one of the three people in America who don't already own this, you can probably snag a used copy for no more than $12.
Bono: Vocals, guitar
The Edge: Guitar, vocals
Adam Clayton: Bass
Larry Mullen, Jr.: Drums, percussion
Great Music to Play While: Driving on the 10 Freeway on a Friday afternoon, heading east into the Mojave Desert.