U2’s The Joshua Tree tackled the complexity of the American ideal

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Two weeks after the March 1987 release of their fifth album, The Joshua Tree, the members of U2 took over the roof of a liquor store in downtown Los Angeles, drawing a crowd of over 1,000 people and more than a few police officers. Inspired by The Beatles’ final rooftop concert in Let It Be, the group sought to create a spectacle—a publicity stunt as much as an act of disruption. They succeeded, but the way the event is portrayed in the video for “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a slight distortion of the truth. The police did show up, but they didn’t shut down the performance as the band had hoped, making their act of rebellion feel perhaps a little bit less rebellious. Though a sizable crowd did show up, it didn’t number in the tens of thousands, as the radio DJ voice at the beginning of the video suggests. But the finer details of what happened almost aren’t that important—U2 played a show on a roof in Los Angeles and filled the street with spectators. That kind of sight is pretty hard to forget.

Up until this point, U2 had an image as being earnest and serious, not necessarily the last group you’d expect to resort to headline-grabbing antics, but certainly not the first. But as the band ascended the summit toward being the biggest band in the world, the more they embraced it. Only a half-decade removed from their ZOO TV tour—its stage festooned with giant video screens, and Bono adopting certain character personas during their performances—U2 had completed their metamorphosis into a Big Statement band. Though their previous records had been nearly overstuffed with lofty concepts, particularly their Brian Eno-produced 1984 effort The Unforgettable Fire, all their music up to that point had been defined by the aesthetics of goth and the tension of post-punk. But after exiting the stage to the sound of thousands of fans singing their own refrain to “40” back to them, against the vivid backdrop of Colorado’s Red Rocks, U2 were ready for something that could fill stadiums and streets—an album that would become their defining statement and their most awe-inspiring artistic accomplishment as a band.

In aesthetic terms, The Joshua Tree might have been only a few degrees removed from the atmospheric art-rock of The Unforgettable Fire, but it transcends genre or niche. It’s more than a rock album or even a great rock album, but an ideal of a rock album—a collection of songs built on soaring hooks and powerful statements, an outsized melodic treatise on the most iconic, conflicted topic they could possibly think of: America.

More specifically, The Joshua Tree is an album about the myth of America and how that clouds the failure of its systems or the darkness that lies beneath it. With The Unforgettable Fire the band had begun to embrace the iconography of the U.S., from Elvis Presley to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and its follow-up only dials down closer into what means, given an even greater visual component through the Los Angeles guerrilla concert in the video for “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the brightly flashing marquees of Las Vegas in the video for “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Even the title, The Joshua Tree, evokes the imagery of the American West, in the desert of Southern California

“America’s a sort of promised land for Irish people—and then, a sort of potentially broken promised land,” Bono told NPR in 2017. “People suffer us talking about America because we love it so much. Rather arrogantly, we don’t think you own it. We think America is an idea that belongs to people who need it most.”

“Streets” isn’t necessarily the best example of this mythical American image, in spite of its video’s setting—Bono actually wrote the lyrics about how he had heard that people’s income and religion in Northern Ireland are predictable based on the street on which somebody lives. But the way in which that idea is put forth employs a utopian ideal—as much rock ‘n’ roll as milk and honey. Strip away The Edge’s signature guitar delay and it’s not hard to hear lines like “I want to run, I want to hide/I want to tear down these walls that hold me inside” sung by Bruce Springsteen (or Arcade Fire’s Win Butler). It’s as powerful and as strong an album opener as U2’s ever released, still a shot of adrenaline and sheer hope more than 30 years later.

That hope doesn’t permeate every track on The Joshua Tree, and there’s more anger in Bono’s lyrics here than on any of the band’s other records. On the tense, hard-driving “Bullet the Blue Sky,” Bono compares U.S. helicopters descending on El Salvador to a plague of locusts, and depicts Ronald Reagan as a man with a face “red like a rose on a thorn bush.” The album’s closing hymn, “Mothers of the Disappeared,” takes inspiration from Bono’s meeting with members of COMADRES, and the explosive “Exit” features the line “The hands that build can also pull down,” a pointed critique of how U.S. foreign intervention wreaks havoc in other countries. And the bittersweet “In God’s Country” depicts the country as a “desert rose” with a “dress torn in ribbons and bows.”

Elsewhere, the damage isn’t strictly confined to America’s shores or the actions of its leaders. “Red Hill Mining Town” returns to U2’s backyard with a reflection on the 1984 UK mining strike, and “Running to Stand Still” once again finds Bono examining an epidemic of heroin addiction through the microcosm of a Dublin couple. There’s a lot of darkness throughout the album, and at times what they see is bleak. But The Joshua Tree didn’t sell 7 million copies in two months because it made people feel bad. In spite of the anguish and anger, Bono and company always find a ray of light amid the chaos and tragedy.

“You could say this is forbidden ground for U2 because we’re the ‘optimistic’ group. But to be an optimist, you mustn’t be blind or deaf to the world around you,” Bono said in a 1987 Hot Press interview. “If I can be objective and of course I can’t, the album’s real strength is that though you travel through deep tunnels and bleak landscapes, there’s a joy at the heart of it.”

For all the album’s heavy handed themes, its greatest moment is ironically the most personal, a song that Bono wrote about his own conflicted feelings about how the touring commitments of a musician tears him away from his home life. “With or Without You” is a song that we’ve all probably heard hundreds of times and all know the words to, and somehow it never loses its power—the finale of The Americans proved just how much of a punch to the gut it still can be after three decades. And it almost ended up being thrown out. The Edge didn’t particularly care for the song in its early stages, and producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were no longer interested in continuing work on what they thought was a lost cause. But Virgin Prunes vocalist Gavin Friday, a good friend of Bono’s, helped him work on the lyrics just as The Edge reached a breakthrough with a prototype of The Infinity Guitar, creating the ambient sustain sound that defines the song. That was enough to bring back Lanois and Eno, who had the idea to submerge the arrangement of the first verse in effects, as well as introducing a sequenced beat, such that when Larry Mullen Jr.’s drumkit finally enters the mix, it breaks through with a thunderous crash—a triumphant moment of catharsis.

As U2 had grown into a more media savvy group—a face as much as a sound—they rode the wave of success of The Joshua Tree, which eventually sold well over 15 million copies—by translating their music and their story to the silver screen. Further emphasizing the growing connection to American culture, in particular America’s long history of roots music, U2 followed up the release of The Joshua Tree with Rattle and Hum, their 1988 concert-documentary film and album that found them in the company of icons (B.B. King, Bob Dylan) and occupying iconic places (Sun Studios). It sort of backfired; what The Joshua Tree earned them in universal respect and acclaim, Rattle and Hum seemed to reverse. Critically the film’s reception was mixed at best, largely seen as an act of undue self-mythologizing, Rattle and Hum had been described as a “mess” (Roger Ebert) and as “a fanzine on celluloid” (The Washington Post‘s Hal Hinson). The album itself fared just as wobbly, though an incident at NME provided drama outside the music itself, when a negative review by Mark Sinker—describing it as “the worst album by a major band in years”—ended up being replaced with a more positive one. Sinker apparently quit in protest after that.

Yet whatever criticisms Rattle and Hum earned it made up for with a set of songs that found the band both at their loosest and least self-serious and even at times transcendent. The single “Desire,” patterned in part after The Stooges’ “1969,” has a kind of hammy jubilation that’s infectious. And the closing track, “All I Want Is You,” stands up to the strongest moments on even The Joshua Tree, its gorgeous orchestration by Van Dyke Parks and atmospheric production giving it at once the feeling of being both massive and weightless, an immensely affecting song made all the more interesting by just how much of a sonic marvel it is.

The success of Rattle and Hum is in showing the sketches and stitches beneath what’s often an immaculate finished product. It’s a less self-serious and more freewheeling set of songs, a celebration of American music—much of it heavily steeped in American Black music—that reveals U2 as a bit less stoic and stiff than the image they’d cultivated throughout the ’80s. Where The Joshua Tree is the America that’s governed by callous men of wealth behind oak doors, Rattle and Hum is its necessary counterpart, an infusion of the hope and celebration that America promises but delivers so scarcely.


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