Uncut Ultimate Music Guide JUNE 2009 - by Andrew Mueller


The record that took over the world... twenty-five million sales later, a fresh look at U2's inescapable fifth studio album.

Worse things can happen to a band than selling twenty-five million (and counting) copies of an album. However, not many worse things can happen to the LP itself. Popular music is unique among the arts in that most of our consumption of it is involuntary. Most public spaces - shops, bars, restaurants, reception areas, airports - impose a soundtrack on their patrons, and this usually consists of music believe to be, well, popular. This inevitably promotes a certain degree of boredom, complacency and even outright hostility regarding the music concerned. Try to estimate, for example, how many times you must have heard The Eagles' Hotel California. Now ask yourself how often you've listened to it deliberately.

It's difficult to overstate how inescapably and how oppressively and annoyingly big a deal The Joshua Tree became very shortly after its release in March 1987. It got U2 onto the front of every publication in explored space, up to and including Time magazine (the cover of the issue in question, April 27, 1987, relegated Mikhail Gorbachev to second billing). It was garlanded with more awards, titles and accolades than Idi Amin. It spawned a tour that ran for more than a hundred dates, none of them in venues incapable of hosting a Cup Final.

The album's trio of signature hits - Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, With Or Without You - were thrashed like ginger mules by radio and TV. In the late '80s, any person who wished to avoid hearing The Joshua Tree, or even hearing about it, would have needed to dedicate themselves to hermitude with a zeal sufficient to show Saint Simeon up as a gregarious dilettante. There was no sanctuary for anyone - for U2 least of all. Every LP they've made since The Joshua Tree has been an attempt to emulate it, or obfuscate it.

For these reasons and more besides, appreciating The Joshua Tree on its own merits necessitates a ruthless divestment of baggage. Far from the lightest of the burdens that must be cast aside is the artwork - Anton Corbijn's grainy, black-and-white, gently blurred portraits of U2 regarding the Mojave desert, and the camera, with the air of dishevelled ascetics severely displeased at having their retreat interrupted. The unmistakable - and regrettably unshakeable - subtext of the photograph, "This is a serious record. About serious things. By serious men." The Joshua Tree was most certainly exactly that, but it needed neither its epic ambition or solemnity of tone emphasised: not for the first or last time, U2 were overselling matters somewhat awkwardly.

It might have been nerves. Though The Joshua Tree was U2's fifth album, they were still very young when they began work on it, in Dublin's Windmill Lane studios in July 1986 (the four members of he group were ages between twenty-five and twenty-seven). They were also, as they would have been well aware, stepping up to take thir shot at the title. In 1984, The Unforgettable Fire saw U2 fashioning the intermittent inspiration flickering throughout their first three LPs into a coherent and singular vision. The subsequent world tour had confirmed their graduation from cultishly regarded post-punk act to major league headliner.

Their appearance at the Wembley Stadium leg of Live Aid in July 1985 had overcome a mullet - Bono's - terrifying even by the standards of the time, to epitomise the guileless good intentions of Bob Geldof's era-defining charitable enterprise. Their place in the firmament of rock'n'roll aristocracy had been further cemented in June 1986 by their place on the six-date Amnesty International benefit. A Conspiracy Of Hope, alongside Sting, Peter Gabriel, Lou Reed, Bryan Adams and Joan Baez. They'd long had a home base (Windmill Lane) where they felt comfortable. They had assembled a production team (Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Steve Lillywhite) capable of coaxing them out of complacency while still honing their focus. All u2 had to do now was make the record.

And they did, although to the first-time listener, The Joshua Tree was a while in announcing itself. The album has a deeply weird running order. The cuts which one would normally expect to be deployed as middle-order big-hitters (Where The Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, With Or Without You) were sent out to open the batting. Years later, Bono would claim that this was the decision of Steve Lillywhite's then-wife, Kirsty MacColl, who listed the songs in her personal order of preference.

The practical result was that when you dropped the needle - as was the style at the time - on Side One, you were still forty-five seconds of pensive keyboard meditation from hearing the first familiar jangle of Edge's guitar. And nearly two minutes away from the initial outpourings of a frontman rarely known for his reticence. Any armchair psychologist leaning toward the diagnosis that U2 were at least slightly worried about what they were getting themselves into was likely to be further convinced when those opening words finally declared themselves: "I want to run... I want to hide".

Where The Streets Have No Name is, like The Joshua Tree as a whole - and like much of U2's canon, come to that - an escape fantasy, a farewell note from someone who doesn't necessarily know where he's going, but is getting out of here, fast and soon. It's U2's Born To Run, an ecstatic, exuberant hymn to the possibilities of the open road. Its gestation was infamously troubled - Eno became so frustrated with it that he attempted to wipe the tapes - but there's no hint of that on the record. Given its eventual settling into U2's live set as a colossally grand finale, it's astonishing how sparse the recording of Where The Streets Have No Name now sounds, how wide the gaps are between Adam Clayton's shuddering bass, a characteristically propulsive Larry Mullen drum part, and Edge's shimmering arpeggios.

The motif of existential dissatisfaction thus established is reinforced by I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For. This lovely song's reputation would shortly be somewhat tarnished by its bombastic reworking, abetted by a gratuitous full-dress gospel choir, on Rattle And Hum. U2 got it right the first time. As is the case with the equally mighty track preceding it, there's somehow less going on here than you expect or remember: the feat of alchemy U2 perform repeatedly on The Joshua Tree is the conjuring of immense, overwhelming music from few and simple ingredients.

They do it again on With Or Without You: a deceptively straightforward arrangement, an instantly memorable melody, and another lyric struggling to hedge the certainties of today against the possibilities of tomorrow. It is no criticism of any of these three opening tracks to suggest that their lyrics feel to a large extent interchangeable. Each is a confession of terrified doubt, a postcard from someone who isn't sure where he is, and is even less certain he has any bright ideas about where he'd rather be.

No such absence of spirit plagues Bullet The Blue Sky. In 1986, while working with Amnesty International on the Conspiracy Of Hope tour, Bono had visited Nicaragua and El Salvador. At that time, both were Cold War frontlines, their populations crushed between thuggish Soviet-backed "liberation" movements and unpleasant US-supported governments (in El Salvador) and murderous US-backed reactionary counter-revolutionaries (in Nicaragua). Bullet The Blue Sky, a vivid evocation of Bono's travels, deserves considerable credit on two levels. One, that it's a staggering rock'n'roll song, a furious approximation of early Public Image Ltd played by Jimi Hendrix (tellingly, if gauchely, live performances of it were for a while cued by a recording of Hendrix's apocalyptic Star-Spangled Banner). Two, that it rises above the temptation to buy into the sentimental romanticising of the rebels (in 1980 the Nicaraguan Sandinistas in particular enjoyed a cachet similar to that now commanded by Hezbollah and Hamas. The Clash had named a bloody awful triple album in the Sandinistas' honour).

Bullet The Blue Sky is unmistakably a critique of the USA, but it's clear that the anger is rooted in the belief that America should be held, and should hold itself, to a higher standard than its enemies: twenty years later, for wearyingly obvious reasons, it remains a potent, pertinent staple of U2's live set.

It's at this point that the massively front-loaded nature of the album's sequencing becomes apparent. Scattered more evenly, the four bold, arresting songs that lead the album off might have created a more consistent momentum. As it is, The Joshua Tree isn't even halfway through before it starts coming down.

This is at least appropriate to the subject matter of Running To Stand Still. The title is a perfect distillation of the dynamic of feeding an addiction - and, indeed, of the essential restlessness that has always animated U2. The lyric's evocation of a Dublin junkie - the line "I see seven towers" is a reference to the infamous, now largely demolished, Ballymum tower block estate - still stands as one of Bono's better character sketches.

U2 had considered the needle and the damage done before, on Unforgettable Fire high point Bad, but the theme merits revisiting in the context of The Joshua Tree - it's the drugs as another bogus escape, another fraudulent promise that there's ever any evading the truth that wherever we go, there we are.

Two other tracks are tied to specific places. Red Hill Mining Town, an elegy for the collateral damage of industrial decline, was inspired by Tony parker's book of (nearly) the same name, chronicling the 1984-85 UK miners' strike: the song is a throwback to U2's earlier records, Bono briefly retreating from the throaty croon he employs for most of The Joshua Tree in favour of an anguished, adolescent yelp, Edge's guitar trebly and brittle.

One Tree Hill appears on the lyric sheet with a specific dateline - Wanganui, new Zealand, July 10, 1986, where U2 attended the funeral of Greg Carroll, a road crew member who'd died in a motorcycle accident in Dublin, and to whom The Joshua Tree is dedicated. It's not a straightforward elegy for a friend, though - from the other side of the world, the record's vision turns back toward America, and the grief expands to mourn another of America's victims: Victor Jara, the Chilean folk singer tortured and executed in the aftermath of the CIA-sponsored coup d'état of 1973.

The working title of The Joshua Tree was The Two Americas, and while that would have been crashingly pompous, it would also have been apt. America's contradictions have always been invigorating fuel for U2. America is both the vast, welcoming, continent-sized goldfield of In God's Country, a tune like a road roaring past a bus window bearing an exuberant declaration of solidarity with previous generations of prospectors, Irish and otherwise ("She is liberty / And she comes to rescue me"). America is also the marauding, hubristic, self-righteous (if generally well-meaning) leviathan that Arnold Toynbee was thinking of when he likened it to a big, friendly dog in a small room, knocking things over with every wag of its tail (and yes, were the famed historian a rock critic circa the late '80s, he'd have been within his rights to make a similar observation about U2).

On Mothers Of The Disappeared, the album's closing track, U2 return to San Salvador, falling in with the vigil by women protesting the abduction of their children by the government's death squads. It's a wilfully downbeat finale. Either that, or Kirsty MacColl just didn't like it much.

Urging anyone to listen to The Joshua Tree feels somewhat absurd, akin to encouraging someone to go out and breathe air - you'll hear this album, or at least three tracks of it, a thousand more times whether you wish to or not. It's worth doing, though. Creative and commercial ambition are rarely so completely realised, and often stadium rock less often so essentially - no, really - humble.

Tracks: Where The Streets Have No Name / I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For / With Or Without You / Bullet The Blue Sky / Running To Stand Still / Red Hill Mining Town / In God's Country / Trip Through Your Wires / One Tree Hill / Exit / Mothers Of The Disappeared
Released: March 9, 1987
Produced by: Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois
Recorded at: Windmill Lane Studios, Dublin
Additional musicians: backing vocals: The Edge, Eno, Lanois / DX7 programming and keyboards: Eno / tambourine, omnichord, additional rhythm guitar: Lanois / harmonica: Bono
Chart position: UK: 1 US: 1