Thursday, October 11, 2007

[050] The Joshua Tree

Album: The Joshua Tree
Artist: U2
Release Date: March 1987
Label: Island
Producers: Daniel Lanois & Brian Eno

“Dream beneath the desert sky”
- from “In God’s Country”

The Joshua Tree made U2 the biggest band in the world, and for the most part it’s a title they’ve held ever since. But at the midpoint of this project, I think we can be honest with each other; let’s talk about the fact that most of the 25 million people that bought it can’t name one song on the second side of this beloved masterpiece. There are a lot of classics on this list that are frontloaded, but none more so than this one. This makes sense because of two things: because the band’s friend sequenced the album for them, and she arranged the songs in the order of her favorites, and because the first four songs remain among their best statements, even twenty years later. If you had to make a list of U2’s ten best songs, it’s almost guaranteed that Joshua Tree’s opening quartet would all make the cut. And they should, so you’d be forgiven for forgetting about the rest of the album. So let’s get this out of the way: “In God’s Country” is a nice little blast, kind of a little brother to “Where The Streets Have No Name”. “Mothers Of The Disappeared” and “One Tree Hill” are timely, post-Graceland-and-So World-Pop; “Mothers” is definitely the better of the two. “Trip Through Your Wires” is merely good, a slice of bluesy arena Rock that points toward the new studio songs that would turn up on Rattle & Hum. “Running To Stand Still” and “Red Hill Mining Town” are great, spacious ballads; the former a stark heroin heartbreaker, the latter a long-rumored would-be single that missed out on its deserved fame. Best of this bunch is “Exit”, which ends up being the most timeless song on the whole album; its dissonance lends it a post-punk edge sharp enough to find it a home on any of your Indie favorites of the last few years. Ok, now that that’s said, let’s get down in the shit.

If the band didn’t go and write “One” after almost breaking up, then “With Or Without You” would have stood as their greatest love song. Bono’s epic performance reminds you that behind all the politics and pretensions, he’s one of the most powerful singers in these past twenty years. His voice is absolutely pristine in its unique, gruff way, contrasting nicely with The Edge’s ambient “infinite sustain” guitar that he borrowed from guitarist Michael Brook; the influence of producers Eno & Lanois is no more obvious than here. The structure is so uncomplicated that it needs to place its faith in the depth of texture, which works one-hundred fold. The lyric wins because it’s honest. It doesn’t play at devotion or grass-is-greener indecision. It simply rides the fence; the dilemma is the compromise because that’s the way love is, just as the title puts it. “I Still Haven’t Found What I'm Looking For” is a gospel song, just as it sounds, but it’s the cornerstone of the album’s narrative thread, which, in a larger sense, is wanderlust. More specifically, it deals with the search for the America of myth and legend, and the types of lives that are lead there – sinful lives; if it was just a gospel song about praising God, then it would be boring and have no real place on a Rock & Roll album (“The Devil’s music”, and all that).

U2 confronts that mythical America in “Bullet The Blue Sky”, still one of their most aggressive songs, and one of their most lyrically political. Written on tour in Central America during a break in recording, “Bullet” skewers Reagan-era American foreign policy and under-the-table weapons dealings with The Edge’s maelstrom of guitar and Larry Mullen Jr.’s distinct gallop. When Bono opens the song singing about “howling wind” and “stinging rain”, you’d think he’s talking about the cacophony of The Edge. This is his album, and this song is his capture of the flag; The Edge creates demilitarized zones with his playing. And if you think that U2 is too busy being serious to be sexy, well, The Edge is also positively fucking the shit out of his axe for four-and-a-half minutes and making Jimi’s ghost proud. And if that’s true, then “Where The Streets Have No Name” is the sound of The Edge caressing his guitar and showering it with gifts. It is a song so good, that I briefly considered writing this whole entry on the possibilities laid out before you by this one song, and then mentioning that, by the way, there happens to be ten other songs on the album too. It ranks among the very best album openers of all time, and I can’t think of any one that unequivocally tops it. It’s a song that I’ve heard thousands of times, but it never ceases to give me chills; the hair on my arms stands up and my eyes get flooded by tears. Every. Time. Maybe it’s just the chord progression that gets to me. Maybe it’s Bono’s insistence, his yearning, his grasping for a new wonder. Maybe it’s all he can do to go there with you, right? It’s that insatiable wanderlust that eventually leads to musical nirvana. You will read about many great albums during this project that, the argument could be made, the presence of one transcendent song pushed the album over the edge and onto the list. The Joshua Tree just happens to have FOUR, four songs that also dwarfed what U2 had done before, and that, my friends, should be enough for all of us.

01. "Where The Streets Have No Name"
02. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
03. "With Or Without You"
04. "Bullet The Blue Sky"
05. "Running To Stand Still"
06. "Red Hill Mining Town"
07. "In God's Country"
08. "Trip Through Your Wires"
09. "One Tree Hill"
10. "Exit"
11. "Mothers Of The Disappeared"

"Where The Streets Have No Name" [video]

"With Or Without You" [live in Boston, 06.01]
From the Elevation 2001: U2 Live In Boston DVD; I swear, if you don't own this DVD, you need to go get it like 5 years ago. Essential.

- BONUS: "Where The Streets Have No Name" [live in Boston, 06.01]
From the Elevation 2001: U2 Live In Boston DVD
- BONUS: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" [video]
- BONUS: "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" [live in Harlem, 1987]
From the documentary Rattle & Hum
- BONUS: "With Or Without You" [video]
- BONUS: "Bullet The Blue Sky" [live in Boston, 06.01]
From the Elevation 2001: U2 Live In Boston DVD
- BONUS: "Bullet The Blue Sky" [live on the Joshua Tree tour, 1987-88]
From the documentary Rattle & Hum
- BONUS: "Running To Stand Still" [live on the Joshua Tree tour, 1987-88]
- BONUS: "Red Hill Mining Town" [audio]
- BONUS: "In God's Country" [video]
- BONUS: "Trip Through Your Wires" [live on the Joshua Tree tour, 1987-88]
- BONUS: "Exit" [live on the Joshua Tree tour, 1987-88]
From the documentary Rattle & Hum
- BONUS: "Mothers Of The Disappeared" [audio]

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