Saturday, June 06, 2009

The Joshua Tree

Has there been a more representative record of the quintessential U2 sound than the iconic ‘The Joshua Tree’ from 1987? While some quarters might argue that 1991’s ‘Achtung Baby’ takes the crown as the Irish rock giants’ most innovative and groundbreaking album, there is no denying the fact that it was ‘The Joshua Tree’ that really put their name on the map, through its meticulously epic production values (courtesy of veteran studio hands Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois), straight-from-the-heart, mature songwriting and brilliantly realised playing from all four members. And put their name on the map it did, becoming chart-toppers in every market imaginable, selling a massive 25 million copies worldwide, and garnering the much-coveted Album of the Year honour at the Grammy Awards in 1988 (back when the Grammies still mattered as real indicators of artistic achievement).

It was on ‘The Joshua Tree’ that U2 genuinely took their musical love affair with America seriously, incorporating choice elements of folk, blues, country and gospel into their basic pop-rock template. Earlier albums like ‘War’ and ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ had seen the band dabbling in the abovementioned, distinctly American musical forms, but it was on ‘The Joshua Tree’ that the band, with the help of Eno and Lanois, streamlined and expanded the textures, and adopted a more anthemic, earnest approach. This inevitably resulted in an album that has absolutely no other sonic parallel in U2’s vast catalogue, even when measured against the bold dance-rock and Euro-electro patterns of ‘Achtung Baby’.

‘The Joshua Tree’ couldn’t ask for a more perfect opener than the breathtakingly widescreen, intensely cinematic ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’, surely one of the all-time great opening tracks of any album ever. A few bars of slightly ominous organ chords eventually give way to The Edge’s familiar guitar arpeggios, blossoming into a veritable wall of sound that is anchored by Adam Calyton’s trenchant bass line and Larry Mullen’s instinctive drumming. Bono has also rarely given a more virtuosic performance here, with an astonishing number of vocal timbres spread out across its five-and-a-half-minute structure.

The following ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ (a number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart) is a different beast altogether, a soaring, gospel-inspired number that bristles with The Edge’s restless, jangly guitar overdubs. Here, Bono’s voice practically crackles with spiritual yearning, with matching search-for-salvation lyrics to boot. However, the subsequent ‘With or Without You’ (another Billboard number one) is a study in contrast with the rousing structure of ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, a moody, bass-anchored humdinger that could well be U2’s equivalent of any of notorious reclusive Scott Walker’s chamber-pop set pieces. It also illustrates one of the best instances of The Edge’s use of the difficult Infinite Guitar, a device that allows a guitar note to be sustained indefinitely.

‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ is arguably the most strident number on ‘The Joshua Tree’, a muscular, menacing denunciation of the Reagan administration’s military interventions in Central America, marked by a basic but powerful drumbeat, screeching guitar slides and snarling, admonitory vocals. ‘Running to Stand Still’ provides a breather of sorts from the relative sturm and drang of the preceding tracks, a reflective, folk-influenced elegy for a heroin addict enhanced by some ruminative slide-guitar runs and thoughtful synth chords.

‘The Joshua Tree’ then goes into topical mode again with ‘Red Hill Mining Town’, a sympathetic portrait of the 1984 British miners’ strike brought about by the union-breaking tactics of the Thatcher administration. ‘In God’s Country’ is a rollicking, country-informed foot-stomper that wryly describes the contemporary cultural landscape of America, while ‘Trip Through Your Wires’ is a blues-based, swaying melody that is fired by Bono’s surprisingly competent harmonica riffs.

Elsewhere, the towering, brooding ‘One Tree Hill’ easily takes the prize as the album’s most emotional moment, a heartfelt eulogy for the late Greg Carroll, Bono’s personal assistant and a close friend of the band, killed in a recent road accident. This is followed by the severely bleak, coldly forbidding ‘Exit’, a wildly crescendoing track about a serial killer haunted by psychotic delusions and traumatic memories, possibly the least accessible song on the album. Things are brought to an appropriate close by the tear-jerking ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’, a cheerless, overcast tribute to the thousands of victims of the 1970s military coups in Argentina.

In short, any self-respecting rock aficionado should count ‘The Joshua Tree’ amongst his of her collection of classic rock records, if only for its sheer historical value. Simultaneously a useful lesson in atmospheric creative sonics and an all-out great rock album, ‘The Joshua Tree’ has never been bettered or improved by anything U2 has released since then.


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