|U2 - The Joshua Tree (20th Anniversary Edition)|
|Music Disc Reviews Audio CD|
|Written by Matt Fink|
|Saturday, 01 December 2007|
1st released: 1987
reviewer: Matt Fink
As intoxicatingly gratifying as it must be to become an artist who has created a universally admired work of art, one of the unintended (and unavoidable) consequences that accompanies such influence is that future generations will never be able to fully understand why your accomplishment was so great. Contextual and generational particulars aside, the result of any influential piece of art is an inevitable wave of artists who attempt to copy and co-opt the most obvious and easily digestible elements of that creative act. In recent years, fans of indie rock have lamented that the evolution of orchestral pop music has eroded the ability of modern listeners to understand how revolutionary the sound of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds was when it was released in 1966. Try it yourself. Pop the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper or the Sex Pistols Never Mind the Bullocks into the CD player and try to imagine - apart from the admittedly great songs - why those albums were considered moments that forever changed the direction of popular music. No doubt, those albums still bristle with creativity, but anyone with a passing knowledge of the last 30 years of popular music would be naïve to suggest that no one has been able to replicate - if not better - the results of those seminal works. In retrospect, they can't help but be diminished by time. Now, after 20 years of arguably being considered the definitive album of 1980s, it's time to see whether U2's The Joshua Tree still impresses modern ears.
Their greatest commercial release, tallying 20 million records sold worldwide, The Joshua Tree was the watershed moment for the quartet from Dublin and was long overdue for expanded reissue treatment. Following up on their pioneering atmospherics of 1984's The Unforgettable Fire - the effects-drenched sonic experiment whose ethereal jangle would come to define their sound - the band returned to the studio ready to scale back the expanse and make a tribute to the America whose inherent contradictions served as Bono's greatest muse. To that extent, the band tempered their layered approach with variants of blues, country and gospel, adding a gritty counterpoint to their more expansive tendencies. Where their previous albums could drift off into post-punk soundscapes, these songs honed their approach to a fine point, with each song centered on a central melody. It's no accident that it became their biggest hit.
Very few albums can claim a 1-2-3 punch as potent as what opens The Joshua Tree, as it drifts from the epic “Where the Streets Have No Name” through the longing “I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For” to the bold balladry of “With or Without You.” Having dominated classic rock radio for so long that it's difficult to hear them with fresh ears, they still glisten with imagination and immediacy, as familiar as an old pair of shoes. After 20 years, what surprises is just how good the rest of the album is, as (aside from the lumbering go-nowhere groove of “Bullet the Blue Sky”) nearly any of the other tracks could have been substituted for those three iconic singles, from the gospel-tinged piano balladry of “Running to Stand Still” to the rumbling jangle of “In God's Country” to the blues-inflected “Trip Through Your Wires.” Not as epic as you might expect if you were only familiar with the singles, it's the low-key and meditative tones of the rest of the album that will bring you back for repeated listens.
Of course, given the album's ubiquity, what was once the band's pioneering sound is now commonplace in modern rock, with Bono's breathy emoting and Edge's delay-heavy guitar atmospherics having been ripped off by a whole generation of musicians. To that end, the experience of listening to The Joshua Tree can be a bit confounding, as no matter how good the songs are one can hear the genesis of any number of wretchedly soulless contemporary bands in this album's seminal throb. Sure, that's hardly U2's fault, and it remains true that no band - including U2 - have been able to tie together an album with such ethereal textures and troubled musings. While bands have been able to use technology to unlock the sonic secrets of The Joshua Tree's sound, the heart of the album remains Bono's conflicted ponderings, and after 20 years it's surprising just how dark the record is. And while the seriousness with which he has approached solving the problems of the world have opened him up to equal doses of praise and mockery, it's worth noting that The Joshua Tree is really a very personal record. No matter how sober the topics, the songs remain eminently relatable.
Though the option exists to purchase only the re-mastered version of the album (with previously unseen photographs and liner notes), most of the reason for this project to exist is to officially release a second disc of B-sides and demos from the Joshua Tree sessions. As the depth of material the band produced at the time of recording the album encouraged Bono to think of the set as a potential double album, the second tier quality of most of these songs indicates why Edge lobbied against and prevailed in his decision to make it a more potent one-disc release. More ruminative and groove-centered, the 15 bonus tracks have a certain smoldering and unfocused charm but fail to live up to the consummately sharp craftsmanship that made the final cut. “Silver and Gold,” the B-side to “Where the Streets Have No Name” and later included on Rattle and Hum, is one exception, its churning intensity and howling vocal capturing the band at their most chaotic. A second version, with the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards and Ron Wood providing bluesy acoustic guitar accompaniment, provides a stripped-down counterpoint to the other version's blustery sprawl. Another B-side, “The Sweetest Thing” is a pleasant oddity, a piano ditty that later became a #1 when re-recorded and released as part of a compilation in 1998.
Still, the great majority of the bonus tracks fail to offer much more than interesting footnotes. The gorgeously luminescent synth drones of “Beautiful Ghost” prove the band was still experimenting with sound, even when creating their less experimental album. The heavy-handed keyboard balladry of “Wave of Sorrow” and the blandly plodding “Walk to the Water” sound like half-completed ideas, each seemingly trying to shift into another gear that is just beyond reach. The world beat groove of “Desert of Our Love” makes for a fun trifle, with popping cowbell, slippery bass lines and Bono's soul man excitations allowing you a rare window into U2's live-in-the-studio sound. That slightly African tone carries over to “Rise Up,” another rousing feel-good sing-along that would never have fit on the comparably somber full-length. Even so, the disc runs out of steam by the end, with the band resorting to setting to music Kerouac's “America” and generally proving that they were fine editors of their own work. Ultimately, The Joshua Tree is as great as it is because these songs fell just short of inclusion.
Taken as a whole, it's probably impossible for someone under the age of 30 to fully comprehend why The Joshua Tree represented a cultural event in the history of pop music. To a certain extent, it belongs to an outdated modality. It's an album that finds a stylistic and thematic focal point and rarely wanders off it, one of the last albums that seems infused with the belief that rock music can save (or at least improve) the world. With Nirvana's angst and cynicism still four years away, it's arguably the last great album to come out of the '60s counterculture. Without a doubt, the songs sound as strikingly otherworldly as ever, but in an era when MP3s and iPods have eroded our appreciation for the album format, it's a release that clearly has to be digested as a complete piece of work to be fully grasped. Until we discover time travel, that's still the only way to hear The Joshua Tree.
Though the textures are a bit brighter and the vocals a bit cleaner, the bulk of this album sounds the same as it did in 1987. It says a lot about the original vision of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, that the album was so remarkably constructed that there's very little to do to change it. Today, it doesn't sound entirely modern, but it's hardly dated, and while the drums and acoustic guitars could be a bit more pronounced, there's really not much to update. As with all U2 releases, the better your stereo equipment, the more enveloping the sound. (For the true audiophiles, there's a double 12” gatefold vinyl format release, with the album pressed across two 180-gram discs.)
The Limited Edition Box Set issue features a third disc, a DVD featuring a live concert recorded at the Hippodrome de Vincennes in Paris in July of 1987, a 40-minute documentary, and videos for “With or Without You” and “Red Hill Mining Town.” Though the live performance pales in comparison to the multimedia spectacle that their shows would become in a few years, the band is obviously at the height of their powers for the 18-song set. In fact, there's very little disparity between the recorded and live versions, and it's nothing short of remarkable that the band could so flawlessly reproduce in a live setting a series of songs that were so carefully assembled in the studio. Young and hungry, the band is firing on all cylinders, and the crisp, multi-camera footage captures every facet of them as a live act.
Just as interesting is Outside It's America, a fly-on-the-wall document of U2's time in the United States around the release of The Joshua Tree. Tracing the band from the filming of a video on a Los Angeles rooftop to goofing around on an airplane and doing a cover shoot for Time Magazine, it's a document of the band discovering the American West. Even better is footage of the band buying cowboy boots and butchering some country classics in a dive bar in Houston, and their angry protest of the cancellation of Martin Luther King Day in Arizona shows their burgeoning interest in social activism. All in all, it would be nice to have a bit more focused conversation from the band members, but as cinéma-vérité goes, it does well to capture a specific moment in time for a rock band on the verge of becoming legends.