3. The Joshua Tree – U2
THE JOSHUA TREE (1987)
released just weeks before another album in the Top 10, U2’s Joshua tree remains one of the greatest experiments in rock music and a truly glorious experience. Though side two slows down and cannot compete with the majestic perfection of side one, it is still a nearly flawless album that I would buy if released today. It also was number one on this list at least 50 times, but I just could not bring myself to list it as the very best CCM has to offer. There are no real reasons other than i find the other two albums to be listed above to be superior for totally different reasoning.
In the summer of 1985 I moved from Orange county, California to Boston, Massachusetts to work with Dan Russell (Fingerprint Records, NewSound Magazine) and his crew to promote and put on the NewSound Festival in Rhode Island. I learned a lot about the rest of the world once moving out of the Orange Curtain, especially the acceptance (or lack thereof) of Christian music. Orange County was filled with edgy Christian bands and the Churches in the area generally accepted the music and even non-Christian enjoyed many of the bands like Undercover, the Lifesavers and the Altar Boys.
Boston was a different world completely. The number of Christians could be counted on ones left hand and the CCM world was a foreign language for most of the society. Russell always had an uphill battle to promote shows and get his wonderful magazine the placement it deserved. But Russell also knew how to make inroads into the mainstream market and reach and work with some amazing artists on the fringe of CCM or whose feet were firmly planted in secular music. Robin Lane, Pierce Pettis, Bruce Cockburn and mark heard were amongst his friends and partners.
But it was U2 that would make the biggest impact. Russell befriended Bono and the band during their first trip to America after playing their first show in Boston. the friendship would last and Russell would serve as a Road manager for the band on several different occasions.
For the few months I was living in the area I stayed at Russell’s parents house about 45 minutes outside of Boston. They had a basement room that was always set up and i was welcomed there. I should note my acceptance was met with some ridicule for a two week period when my Los Angeles Lakers beat their Boston Celtics in the NBA Championship. In fact, I was told i needed to find another place to live for a few days about that time, though they situation was unrelated to NBA rivalry.
The story goes that they had already promised the room to someone who was visiting for a few days. I was 20 and could crash just about anywhere, so I had no problem with it. I did have a problem when i found out later that it was Bono who was staying there and i didn’t get a dinner invitation. But it was the first time I met Bono (I have met in on four different occasions) and was the most casual of all of the meetings. Bono was on an extended holiday between the release of “Unforgettable Fire” the previous year and the recording of “The Joshua Tree” that would begin a year later.
It was during this holiday and travel that came with it that Bono began to write songs that would alter make up the bulk of “The Joshua tree.” His love affair with America was blossoming and this trip would leave an impression that would allow him to create the bands finest work and most lasting artistic achievement.
This album would also mark the firsttime where Bono would work through a song as a songwriter, instead of the stream of consciousness stylings of the bands earlier work. This process works as the songs are clearly more focused, more creative and lyrically compelling than any previous works.
The band had worked through its flag waving phase with “Unforgettable Fire” and their political infused rhetoric would give way to a more thoughtful and, at times, perplexing message. A band with all the answers became a band loaded with nothing but questions. Even on the most expressive songs, the album lacks a real clearly defined position, but rather Bono joins with masses in asking the bigger questions and is comfortable without having all the answers.
One other thought about the album and its “firsts” for the band, is that I find it to be the first “studio” album. The first three were clearly live feeling and TUF was experimental, but not necessarily a band sounding project. TJT sounds like a real studio album from a real band. With TJT, U2 became a real band.
Producing legends Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were once again tapped for this release after their successful work on the predecessor. But rather than a mystical, experimental rock sound, the band infused more blues, rock and Americana into the musical soundscape and the producers accentuated this new direction with seamless production and a killer rhythm section sound. This was a rock album like one would here from The Who, with both stark, in your face drums and bass as well as lush, orchestral sounds filling every groove. It is hard not to here the influence of British and American blues, the works of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and the aforementioned The Who.
Though poets would marvel at amber waves of grain, purple mountains and snow covered peeks, America also has large desert areas that expand beyond the reach of even the keenest eye. This wonderful dichotomy of a nation blessed with a rich bounty and a desolate heart at times served as a perfect image for the albums message. In fact, the working title for the album was “Two Americas.” Although at times Bono’s scathing diatribes sound a bit simplistic, there is never a point when the listener doesn’t fully believe Bono and the band is not madly in love with the country.
One last little tidbit of information that I believe impacts the album and why side two does not live up to the awesome presence of side one. Steve Lillywhite, who had worked with the band since their earliest days was asked to have his wife set the the song order for the album based on her own personal preference. her only instruction was to start the album with “Where the Streets Have No Name” and finish it with “Mother of the Disappeared.” the rest was up to her. Ms. Lillywhite and I must share the exact same feelings for each songs, as the finest songs clearly grace the first side. If those songs were placed thoughout the whoe project one might wonder if the reception for the album would be any different.
“Where the Streets Have No Name” kicks off the album and, for me at least, is the closes to anything from “The Unforgettable Fire.” The long atmospheric introduction gives way to patented Edge “delay effect” guitar riff that would define U2’s sound for its entire lifetime. The song would earn the band a Grammy for Best Rock Performance and remain a staple for 25 years live. Special consideration should be given to the bass and drum sounds that drive this song.
It is with the lead track that a constant theme that will throughout of doubt and faith holding hands begins. Some have surmised the song is looking at heaven as the residence of those unnamed streets, while others note the longing and doubting expression that accompany the lyrics. In Ireland ones religious affiliation could be determined by the street one lived one, but in heaven there will be no street names; no denomination or affiliations allowed. These spiritual themes will not end here and will serve as a juxtaposition against the politically tinged songs that also reveal a sense of doubt in the Cold war period.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” remains my personal favorite Bono vocal. Using is open throat-ed Gospel best, the use of a backing choir behind Bono gives the song a truly American Gospel feel. The constant refrain of doubt is tempered by some of Bono’s finest lyrics when he gives witness to his faith using the imagery of the cross and Second Coming. The doubt, when laid against the more affirmative faith statements, makes one believe what Bono hasn’t found is the revealed promises of a Kingdom Come here on Earth and the peace promised with the Gospel progression. Oddly enough, as a Postmillennialist, I find the song amazingly comforting in that Bono recognizes the Gospel victory is more than just a Heavenly event; in that I am in agreement with Bono.
Bono has admitted in interviews that the year of recording was one of the most difficult of his entire life. Not only was the album a long and difficult process, the fear associated with high expectation and the strees combined to create a rift in his marriage. “With or Without You” reveals a man in love and struggling with it. One of the great mysteries on the album is how these brooding songs with minimal hooks just completely envelope the listener and became monster hits.
The first real rocker is “Bullet the Blue Sky,” which would later be covered by P.O.D. The songs possesses some of the edge’s most aggressive guitar work ever recorded. the drums and bass are just pounding like the sound of enemies at war with tanks and artillery. The edge’s guitar work is that of sonic airplane fighters with bombs in tow. Written after a visit to San Salvador, the band was gripped with the fear and pain of those caught in the bloody effects of war. there is both anger and compassion here. yet in the midst Bono adds a spiritual connection borrowing from the Biblical story of Jacob wrestling an angel. Bono uses it here like that of the David and Goliath where the underdog’s resistance eventually leads to its victory.
The band may have written a more beautiful melody than the one that accompanies “Running to Stand Still,” but I cannot think of one. The great irony of placing such a beautiful melody behind the story of heroin addiction is both brilliant and obvious. The song sounds like something David Crowder would rip off for a worship song, but here we have a couple so possessed by their addition that everything is lost and redemption never found.
“Red Hill Mining Town” is like something from Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” without the political grandstanding. Inspired by a strike in a UK mining town, the song reveals the impacts (personally, financially, emotionally and spiritually) of a strike on the people involved. The need for love to overcome and represented as the last thing to hold on to when all is lost may also point to his troubled marriage at the time. It should be noted here that Bono sings more passionately without screaming than on any other U2 project. described as more “open throat” than previous releases, Bono became a better vocalist on this album.
The most obviously America focused song is “In God’s Country.” The song also reminds me the most of anything from the bands first three projects. the guitar sound employed is not far from what was heard on “War.” This hate/love affair the band always has had with America is played most personally here. There is real conflict here. America provides liberty, safety and freedom, yet her greatest asset is gold (money). The greed mixed with her love and offer of freedom appears to conflict, especially for those looking from the outside.
The American blues influence is front and center with “Trip Through Your Wires.” I also refer to it as “the forgotten song.” When I reflect on the album, it is the one i remember the least. It, at least to me, sounds like something that would have fit on “Rattle and Hum.” It is a real blues song, complete with a rocking harmonica solo. Lyrically it seems Bono is merging is love/hate relationship with America with his struggling marriage. yet, at the same time, there is a real sense of a spiritual longing and realization of his relationship with God as the one who provides in the midst of the struggle.
“One Tree Hill” follows with a sound completely different from the previous song, sounding more like what appeared on side one. But it is also where the album hits its only really flat moments. Not a bad song (or group of songs) but just not as overwhelming as the first seven or so.
“Exit” is just an odd tune.From a musical perspective, it doesn’t even really start for the first 90 seconds and when it does, it is short lived and intense. Then it disappears again. The story of what I guess is a psychotic killer, the musical backdrops seems a perfect setting. There is a real internal conflict here. The hand that can build can also tear down is the theme and the line that closes the song, and it best represents the band’s opinion of the American international policy. the conflict of those outside of American note that the same land that provides more international relief and support during tragedy is also the most expansive military force on the planet.
The album closes with the haunting “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Borrowing its name from a group of women in Salvador that banded together to help find children lost, kidnapped or taken off to war by the local government is difficult and stirring at the same time. it is no wonder the band requested the song close the album, as it appears the most personal and emotive. One feels Bono’s pain as he describes the women’s feelings and longing wails.
There were always problems with the several different releases of the album as far as mixes and mastering, though the 20th Anniversary version is spectacular. Bono actually is said to have gone into an emotional tailspin before the albums release and asked for several re-edits, changes and new mixes. those were denied and the album was released and changed the musical world. It took what many as the best live band on the planet and, for a time, made them the best band on the planet, period!
I know many will complain this album should be number one. others will complain it doesn’t belong on the list at all (they’re seriously wrong by the way), and the former group may be right. It is really as nearly perfect as an album can get and it is the best the band ever offered. Its sheer honesty and compelling lyrical and musical expressions have never been duplicated by the band and few other artists could ever hope to match it. I have my reasons for its placement as, I’m sure, many will their reasons for disagreeing.