Wondering Sound NOVEMBER 16, 2010 - by J. Edward Keyes


Officially poised to conquer

It's no coincidence that the photo on the cover of The Joshua Tree is letter-boxed, and in black and white. This is U2's art film - stern and shadowy and presented in the band's proper aspect ratio: enormous-by-enormous-and-a-half. Chances are, if you live anywhere within the vicinity of a radio, you've already heard most of this record. It was an unstoppable force, moving upwards of twenty million copies, taking up residence at the top of the charts for months on end and eventually becoming one of the best-selling records of all time. But, like Bruce Springsteen's Born In The U.S.A., The Joshua Tree is not about what you think it's about; beneath its veneer of steely confidence lies the bitter tang of disillusionment.

"It's all wrapped up in America, or a place like America," Bono said of the record in a TV interview shortly before its release. "All the good and the bad that lies in that continent." Working again with Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno - the creative team responsible for The Unforgettable Fire, the group managed to make a record about America without simply mimicking its musical forms (they'd wait until Rattle And Hum to do that). Rather than acting as a rallying cry or a War-style call to arms, The Joshua Tree goes after something more liminal: Bono spent the months leading up to the album's recording reading about "those on the fringes of the Promised Land, cut off from the American Dream," and the best way to approach the record is not as a piece of frothy art-rock triumphalism, but as a plaint from those clawing just to get to the next day. That perspective crucially re-contextualises even the album's best-known songs: The blind rush of Where The Streets Have No Name - with its cry of "I want to feel sunlight on my face / I see the dust cloud disappear without a trace," comes across not as some upper-middle-class vision of heaven, but as a very real prayer of the desperate. Even With Or Without You, the album's monolithic lead single, is a big blank broken heart, laced up with a guitar lead from The Edge that barely registers as more than the whistle of some distant tea kettle.

And those are just the singles. Running To Stand Still, against a brittle blues-guitar twang, depicts a sobbing junkie flooding her veins with heroin; Exit, with its spent, jaded, lurching protagonist, has all the grim desert foreboding of a Cormac McCarthy novel; the bright and clanging One Tree Hill is actually about the torture and assassination of Chilean protest singer Victor Jara. And, sure, you can pretty easily take umbrage at white millionaire rock stars acting as the voice for the disenfranchised, but as a purely artistic conceit, they manage to make it work.

The ubiquity of the album, and the impact it had on subsequent popular music, make it easy to forget that, with The Joshua Tree, U2 were essentially figuring out a whole new way to write arena rock. Before this, the way you beat your way into the arenas was by writing songs that spoke in broad platitudes using miles-high Mutt Lange gang vocals on the chorus. U2 figured out a way to take that exact same level of grandiosity and swell-chested bombast and shove it in a new package, one where The Edge's creamy guitar textures replaced the crunch of power chords and Bono's straining-up-the-octave tenor held its own against the supernatural shriek of rival rock frontmen. If you consider that, the year it was released, the best selling album in the world was Bon Jovi's Slippery When Wet, you begin to appreciate the magnitude of what the group was trying to pull off.

The record's sonic scope and narrative contrarianism fuse perfectly in the incendiary and still-unsettling Bullet The Blue Sky, a song Bono wrote after visiting oppressed farm workers in Nicaragua and El Salvador - what he called the "other side" of American foreign policy. The song is a fever dream, Edge's guitar mimicking roaring fighter planes, Mullen's drumming sounding like detonating bombs. "Outside is America," Bono cracked ominously during the song's conclusion, "Outside is America." And it was - with all its contradictions, privilege and poverty. It was America of legend and America of the dispossessed - an America that U2 was officially poised to conquer.