Thursday, April 16, 2009

'The Joshua Tree' by U2 is emotional, personal and vivid

Even a casual listen of The Joshua Tree reveals that it is an intensely personal album. Themes of love, faith, and America reverberate throughout it. However, by embracing a more commercial approach to record making, U2 produced not only an intelligent record, but one that sounded great on the radio. It was now possible to cruise to the Irish band.

Most Americans first became aware of the band in 1983 when they released War. However, that album was the culmination of seven years of hard work. The band started in 1976 when the four members were still in high school. In 1980, they released their first album Boy and then released October the following year.

However, after releasing October, the band was on the verge of breaking up. Lead singer Bono, guitarist the Edge, and drummer Larry Mullin, Jr., each questioned whether rock and roll was a godly use of their talents. All three are Christians, and their doubts nearly ended the band. The Edge was the last of the three to decide to stay, and once he made his decision, their career took off.

Their next release was War and was their commercial breakthrough in the United States. They followed that up with The Unforgettable Fire in 1985, which many considered a step backward. In fact, one book listed the album as one of the fifty worst albums of all time.

However, superstardom arrived with The Joshua Tree. Blending radio-friendly hooks with personal subject matter, U2 arrived as the next big thing in 1987. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "With or Without You" both hit the top of the single's chart.

Bono once said that "I Still Haven't Found What I’m Looking For" is more about doubt than faith. If nothing else, the song is about the dissatisfaction of this world when knowing that heaven awaits. Even the faith people currently contain in their heart pales when compared to the next life.

"With or Without You" revisits an often-told rock and roll tale. The "love too much to let go" idea is a standard rock and roll theme, but the band handled it well. The Edge's jagged guitar work blended nicely with lyrics full of imagery about breaking, tearing, and pain.

Perhaps the album's best song is "One Tree Hill." Written as a eulogy for a friend who died in a motorcycle wreck, the song communicates the pain of loss with the hope of one day being re-united. The song climaxes with Revelation-type imagery: "I'll see you again when the stars fall from the sky/And the moon has turned red over One Tree Hill."

In addition, "Where the Streets Have No Name," "In God's Country," and "Trip Through Your Wires" all received heavy radio airplay.

The album's massive success followed the same general pattern of the breakout albums of Bruce Springsteen and Prince a few years earlier. Springsteen and Prince were artists who had enjoyed both commercial and critical success early in their careers. However, they took the next step in popularity when they took their imaginative lyrics and merged them with more commercial melodies. This allowed them to penetrate a much larger audience.

U2 gets on some folks' nerves because they are too serious or they are perceived as taking themselves too seriously. While it is true that they should lighten up every now and then, it is hard to criticize anybody because they are too sincere. We live in an age of fluff and marketing manipulation. Even if you do not like their music, they deserve a pat on the back for at least trying to make a difference.

Resources: The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, The Rolling Stone Album Guide; 'The Joshua Tree' liner notes

1 comment:

Joltin' Django said...

If I had to pick five LPs that I'd take to a desert island, The Joshua Tree would be one of the five -- if not the "first" of the five.

I actually wrote a college English paper on the "American roots" of JT, and I now wish I had that paper back. In that paper, I praised Irish lads who could expertly channel American roots music ... a subject U2 explored in the highly underrated concert film Rattle and Hum.

I could spend the next 2 hours talking about U2. I'll spare your readers all that and just say this ...

*The delay pedal I own was purchased in 1992 just so I ape the solos on The Joshua Tree.

*I pick a hyped-up version of "Trip Through Your Wires" with the bluegrass boys with whom I often play.

*When I was dating my first serious girlfriend as a senior in high school, I often flipped a cassette between "In God's Country" and "Bullet the Blue Sky." I can't even think of either of those tunes without thinking about ... my first serious girlfriend.

*You can't really appreciate Joshua Tree without seeing Rattle and Hum. The scenes in which the members of U2 visit Graceland, and then record at Sun Studios, are quite surreal ... and rank among my favorite moments in cinema.

*I was fortunate enough to see U2 perform at Middle Tennessee State University's Murphy Center in 1987. My cousin -- who was an MTSU student at the time -- snagged two tix for me and a friend. I remember almost everything about that show. That was 20 years ago, and that tells you something ...

I could go on and on 'bout The Joshua Tree ........!