A couple of weeks ago, I posted images of the inner-vinyl labels of side one and side two of U2’s 1987 release The Joshua Tree (Island). It was my way of marking the 30th anniversary of the release of one of my prized albums. And I don’t mean compact disc either. This was a vinyl pressing, gatefold jacket and lyrics insert edition as it was intended on March 9th, 1987. I was thirty years younger and listening to jazz exclusively, since pop music and rock 'n' roll in general weren’t engaging my ears at the time. But U2 was the exception. I was immediately impressed when they launched in Canada in 1980, thanks to the support of CFNY radio and The New Music television program, long-time sources of new groups in the post-punk age of my generation. By posting the inner-label images on my Facebook page, I wanted to remember the record as a two-sided experience where you centered your focus on the rotation of the long-play album and flipped it to side two. In those days, music was a little more precious in its physical form. Digital files are simply no match for the texture and engagement in a record. To those pundits who fail to see the value in “things” such as vinyl albums, you’re way off the mark and rude to think that “things” are worthless, backdated forms of media.
A FB friend challenged me to comment on the listening experience of both sides of The Joshua Tree to get my impressions of what the album means to me today, thirty years later. It’s been a profitable study. With what I know now about this band and the tens of thousands of hours of music I’ve heard since 1987, the record still stands out for me. The Joshua Tree looms large in my life, even though it’s not my favourite U2 album. That honour goes to Unforgettable Fire (Island, 1984), which, I think, is the musical gateway to The Joshua Tree. The former’s incredible production values and sonic textures, under the helm of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, are in evidence on the 1987 release, but the songs are much bolder in scope on the latter. The Joshua Tree is not only a simple love letter to the United States. It’s an album that MOJO Magazine, in its April 2017 cover story, rightfully suggests is a combination of “fear & loving in America.”.Side one and side two, while not perfectly aligned to that notion, do offer contrasting points of view: side one is a mostly religious and spiritual journey, while side two breaks into the grandeur of the American wilderness causing the band to dream in this real or imagined alien nation.
But Bono fails to "break free" by the second song because he “still hasn’t found what he’s looking for,” yet he’s “still running” with the belief that “all the colours will bleed into one.” The references to the Stations of the Cross are not lost on this Catholic listener: “You carried the cross and my shame, / You know I believe it” but, and it’s a big but, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” This driving second cut on side one leads to the quieter introspective first verse of “With or Without You,” a gentle refrain, only to climax with Bono’s powerful wordless refrain building on the phrase “And you give yourself away” – his chant, which brings him a smidgen of inner peace. It would be too obvious for me to say that the first three songs on The Joshua Tree are a kind of like the Holy Trinity of the album. If so, only to remind me that while U2 didn’t wear their religion on their sleeves, they weren’t afraid to sing about their belief in God or Jesus Christ. This ingredient found in their music was part of their appeal in the early days to some people. I didn’t gravitate to that important aspect of their music specifically, but I certainly appreciate it more thirty years later. Lest we forget that the band is Irish!
Side one changes gears with the heavy inflections of “Bullet The Blue Sky,” are of U2’s political songs that criticize the business of warfare. Bono’s husky spoken-word refrain in the middle of the song’s quiet storm characterizes the military-industrial complex for a new generation: “One hundred, two hundred, and I can see those fighter planes.” He even repeats the line as The Edge, using an effective slide run à la Jimi Hendrix, shakes our ears with the loud sounds of aircraft, which we see in our mind’s eye. It’s an effective track and my second favourite on the record: perfectly executed by the band and beautifully mixed by Steve Lillywhite, the unsung technical hero of The Joshua Tree. Side one closes with a dream-eyed arena rock song, “Running to Stand Still,” an ironic ending to the first side of an album that wanted to “tear down the walls” upon opening.
Side two opens with a ballad about home – “Red Hill Mining Town” – that once again finds Bono making a plea for human contact: “I’m hanging on, / You’re all that’s left to hold on to.” But it’s a mirage as we “see the lights go down on Red Hill Town.” Then we pass into the dream and enter the center of The Joshua Tree, best told on “In God’s Country” – my favourite cut on the record. I think this song with its sonic vastness perfectly complements the cover image and inner-jacket image of the band against the great desert sky. This is not a group in the middle of nowhere; they’re in the solitude and mysterious desert with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, cornered to the extreme left side of the jacket with a vast desolate landscape behind them. I don’t who coined it first, but to refer to this area, specifically in New Mexico, as “God’s Country” is to surrender to its size and scope: U2 as mere mortals in the giant wasteland.
It all becomes quite dark by the time we hear “Exit,” one of the gloomiest songs in the Bono/Edge songbook. It’s a song that even caught Bono by surprise in the massive tour that followed in 1987. As he told it recently in Mojo Magazine: “I was really black, and I would bring the band into that blackness with me. Occasionally I’d end up in the audience or fall off the stage or do stupid shit and damage myself.” It’s interesting to hear his wisdom today compared to the identity crisis Bono and U2 experienced on that 1987 World Tour when they were only in their mid-twenties, like me. Ultimately this is how I can relate to music beyond mere nostalgia. Sure, I remember the great time I had in my twenties and music of a certain time in my life fuels my memory, but with U2 the feeling runs a lot deeper than a passing fancy thirty years later. (Not so for the band who are doing the complete album on a stadium tour this summer.) On the other hand, I don’t try to take music that seriously as a mirror into my soul, as it were. The Joshua Tree wasn’t just another album from my youth either. I was a fan of the band and their epic and picturesque sound because the subject of their songs connected with me. I could say the very same thing about Frank Zappa or Thelonious Monk or Joni Mitchell, so U2 holds no exclusivity over me as such. But when it comes to authenticity and passion, in U2 and this profound album, I found what I was looking for.
John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He is the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Father of Invention (Backbeat Books, 2016) now available.