America, promised land of artistic success. At some point in the career of all major label artists, the America question must rear its head. ‘Crack America and the world is yours, my friend’, sayeth the soothsayer to the chin-hair stroking muso. Sally forth Bono on his Mormon-esque mission to convert American pop music audiences and, more specifically, to conquer the US album chart. 1987’s Joshua Tree solidifies Bono’s growing obsession with the grandiosity and expanse of the States, mirrored in his lyrical flourishes and the sheer artistic scope presented on this album, the band’s fifth and, arguably, their strongest artistic work to date. ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ with its breathless refrain of ‘outside it’s America … outside it’s America’ brings to mind a situational comedy quite opposed to the poetic portentousness of the lyrics, in which Bono and the band are crammed like sardines on a Lear jet, lackadaisically staring out of the cabin windows, only to visibly perk up in their seats on seeing American soil below, assaying the possibilities of cracking the US album chart. This was a feat that the band finally achieved with Joshua Tree, which landed with aplomb straight in at the number 1 spot on the US Billboard chart. It might well be that the meek shall one day inherit the earth, but for now they’ll have a bloody long wait in the meanwhile.
What constitutes success on both sides of the Atlantic is still a mystery to most. Whilst Radiohead would later crack the US album chart in an almost po-faced and counterproductive fashion, specifically by taking their music to more obtuse and challenging places, U2 strategically studied the musical landscape of the US, self-consciously shunning the musical novelties of their homeland, aiming instead for a sound with a wider, more panoramic scope that would simultaneously fuel and feed their artistic endeavours. The U2 entourage is a self-replenishing gas-guzzling monster which both pollutes and purifies. Granted, this is the kind of statement that could earn a writer jail time in pseuds corner, although the band’s aesthetic at this point had began to affirm their contrary outlook on the music scene and their canny, business-like sense of opportunism within it. The band’s previous album, The Unforgettable Fire, reached a promising number 12 in the US album chart – joint with 1983’s War, which also entered the US album chart at number 12 – marking a sense of upwards momentum for the band. During the recording sessions for Joshua Tree, the band must have felt that they were already halfway up a ladder, perhaps fearing that they might suddenly stall and lose their grip altogether. Here Bono and the band expand their horizons, both lyrically and musically, encapsulating the great expanse that was beginning to open itself up before their feet, in more ways than one. Joshua Tree’s artful appropriations of rootsy Americana, replete with slide guitar country sounds and, on the other side of the equation, soulful, gospel-inspired vocals, were to prove effective. These Irish lads were to re-introduce American audiences to their own musical history, offering songs which possessed sturdy musicianship and affecting songwriting. U2 have always been about opportunism in every sense of the word, and here they had the songs to back up their ambitions.
Brian Eno’s contributions are so marked on the album that he ought to be credited as U2’s fifth member. Before I was even aware of the producer’s input on the Joshua Tree, I had detected a distinct Eno vibe, spurred to mind by the beautiful chinks of gamelan-like guitar sound which opens the majestic ‘With or Without You’. Eno’s array of sonic tricks are placed through the Edge’s effects pedal. His playing gravitates between softly strummed folk chords to fashioned blasts of white noise which sound like ripping pearls of thunder from a far off storm, an effect which sculptures a peripheral landscape in the midst of these songs. America becomes the project and the aesthetic in itself, and the songs on Joshua Tree attempt unashamedly to create something grandiose and all-encompassing. These are songs to be lived in.
Eno’s innovative modulations of sound would anticipate what would later be termed ‘post-rock’: an aesthetic that can found today in the grand-scale musical perturbations of Iceland’s Sigur Ros and, more pertinent to the 1987 release of this album, Talk Talk’s own densely sculptured world created on their 1988 opus, Spirit of Eden. The first three songs pack a solid 1-2-3 punch. ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ and ‘With or Without You’, are all instantly recognisable today; three well-worn and spiritually uplifting songs which utilise Eno’s production and the band’s own songwriting talents.
The latter half of the album has a lot to live up to, and for the most part, it holds up. ‘Running to Stand Still’ puts us on more folky, rootsy territory, with its steel-stringed guitarplay blended with some stirring Lennon-esque pop and gospel influences. ‘Red Mill Mining Town’, despite the sense of locality suggested by its title, is another pop song with a huge chorus; the sound of a band searching, already deep in scope. ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’, meanwhile, ends the album with an end credits-like succinctness.
Whether you see Bono as a convenient bogeyman for rock’s most spurious excesses, or, on the other hand, admire his realisation that the idealism and hearty ambitions of rock have a genuine space on a real political podium, you have to admire these songs, despite the self-parody the band would arguably become in later releases. This self-styled ‘international rock group’ was, for now, going places, and Joshua Tree, for me, remains their most fully-rounded and successful album to date.
If you down own, pay for it and down load it… The Joshua Tree