Does anyone remember a time when U2 wasn’t at the level of “OMG ITS U2!!!!!!!!” status?
There’s no denying that U2 is one of the, if not THE, biggest rock band in the world. They’re such an omnipresent band that it’s hard to remember when they were just a band and what made everyone like them in the first place. They weren’t fancy, nothing super flashy about them, nothing groundbreaking about their performance, just four guys in jackets playing fist-pumping arena rock taking in the horrors of the world around them.
But one of U2’s greatest strengths has been their talent for building themselves. Whether it’s in their songs or with their profile, U2 are experts in gathering steam while pressing forward. By 1986, U2 had a perfect storm swirling around them with the successes of their third and fourth albums, 1983’s War and 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, along with their legendary performance at 1985’s Live Aid. Despite both albums being vital steps for the band, The Unforgettable Fire was clearly the more important album for U2 sonically. On tracks like “Wire,” “Bad,” and “Elvis Presley and America,” the band expanded their sound by allowing guitarist The Edge use echo effects and haunting strums of the string to create a swirling atmosphere for drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton to build their own solid rhythm section and enigmatic frontman Bono flex his vocal range from quiet whispers to screams that could reach mountain tops. The band built momentum from The Edge’s guitar or Mullen Jr.’s drum rolls to such titanic choruses, it made U2 exciting and something to look out for, especially when it came to what they’d do next.
But U2’s first true moment as the biggest band in the world came today 30 years ago with the release of The Joshua Tree. U2 were well-known before, but this sent them into the stratosphere of music and pop culture. Of course it did, especially in the states (over 8 million sold from the 25 million moved worldwide) who were struggling with the failed hope of Ronald Reagan and his administration’s international policies (how the times have changed). But the Joshua Tree itself and its setting is also a theme for the album: the vast but barren desert represented how the band felt at the time seeing the lost prospects of the country that was held in such a high regard and their own spiritual crises as to where they were in their career. That wide-eyed viewed of such a bleak world connected with millions of people, especially fed through the atmospheric soundscapes of producers Daniel Lanois (Peter Gabriel’s So) and Brian Eno (David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy).
Describing the state of 80s America is a tall order to do in 11 tracks and 50 minutes but, as said before, U2 thrives on building momentum. It’s there right from the get-go on The Edge’s iconic riff. And the song builds from there, with Mullen Jr.’s drums rolling in and Clayton’s bass comes in. Even before Bono says the first line of the album, it’s already the most inspiring thing you’ve ever heard. That’s the same formula applied to the album’s next two tracks: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You.” The former remains a powerful hymn 30 years on, again using the simple strumming of The Edge’s guitar and the echoes of the production to expand the song. The latter is certainly the softer song sonically, but the way Bono delivers his lines from the quiet opening verse to the aching heart heard in the chorus is all the volume ever needed. That quiet delicacy is heard again on “Running to Stand Still,” with The Edge’s somber guitar chords and Mullen Jr.’s rolling bass drum creating a solid wall of solitude for Bono’s somber confessional. And then there’s the album closer, “Mothers of the Disappeared,” where U2 sends the listeners off into the same open sea of sand the Joshua Tree is found, with the whisper of The Edge’s repeating guitar effects and Bono’s ghostly vocal delivery.
None of that is to say that The Joshua Tree doesn’t pack a punch or two. “In God’s Country” has some of Mullen Jr.’s punchiest drums in his time with the band, with The Edge putting some extra urgency into his guitar strumming. In fact, Mullen Jr. might be the secret weapon of U2 with his unbreakable backbeat on “Trip Through Your Wires” and “One Tree Hill.” His heaviest moment, and the heaviest moment on the album in general, is the imposing “Bullet the Blue Sky” that rolls through like a tank. From The Edge’s growling guitar solo, Mullen Jr.’s forceful drums and Bono’s vocal performance that sounds like a soldier on his last breath, “Bullet the Blue Sky” remains most forceful statement on a record. It’s a sonic bullet that cuts through any hint of pretentiousness and showed the world that U2 meant business.
Lyrically, U2 were always thinking beyond themselves. The Joshua Tree is certainly full of U2 getting spiritual with their existence. “Where the Streets Have No Name” brings back the desert as a place of peace and paradise away from persecution (“The city’s a flood, and our love turns to rust/We’re beaten and blown by the wind/Trampled in dust/I’ll show you a place/High on a desert plain”) while “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” speaks for itself in terms of soul-searching. Americana also remains a proud theme throughout the desert, with “In God’s Country” highlighting how prosperity never truly lasts (“The rivers run but soon run dry”) and “Bullet the Blue Sky” condemning the violence perpetrated overseas while still having to come home to broken city streets with a haunting saxophone echoing in the background. As soft as “With or Without You” sounds, it’s lyrics ache with the pain of Bono’s failing marriage (“My hands are tied, my body bruised/She got me with nothing to win/And nothing left to lose”).
Despite their omnipresent persona and legacy, U2’s charms have always been the little things about them. The simple detail in their lyrics, their outward-looking worldviews, and the band’s use of forward momentum are all used expertly on The Joshua Tree. 30 years on, an album dealing with spiritual clarity in the land of the damaged red, white, and blue is something incredibly prescient. For all their stadium excess and preachiness, U2 have always placed themselves at the right place at the right time, probably why the world watched them so carefully.