Counterbalance No. 38: U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’

The Joshua Tree

Klinger: Mendelsohn, I’m not going to lie to you. U2’s The Joshua Tree came out my freshman year of college. A time when everything is huge—the books you read, the friends you make, and the albums you hear are all imbued with epic importance. It’s the only time in your life when it’s OK to be a pretentious dork. Hearing this album again puts me right back in that time. So no matter how many points I lose from my hipper/punker/avant-gardier friends, I simply cannot help but like this album.

Mendelsohn: I can get behind that kind of enthusiasm. I too have albums that make me feel ways about things. But, and I’m sure you could see this coming a mile away, The Joshua Tree is not one of them. When I reached the legal listening age in the mid-’90s, U2 had transformed from honest seekers on the musical war path into a garish, sideshow pop culture act. It wasn’t really my thing. And then Bono got appointed goodwill ambassador to every country in the world and I really tuned the band out.

But listening to The Joshua Tree for this project, it’s not hard to see that the hype is justly deserved. This album is a grandiose listening experience. Not in terms of a spectacle but more along the lines of a natural wonder like a tornado or the mighty Mississippi River or a dog pooping in your yard—you can’t help but stare. I know that’s what the band was going for and they seemed to have nailed it.

Klinger: Wow, just when I think I have you all figured out, Mendelsohn . . . Here I was gearing up for a battle royale, and you go all even-handed and temperate on me! I prepared all these note cards for nothing.

But hey, as long as we’re here, I suppose we should try to get at what got this album placed so high on the critic’s lists. I think at least part of that stems from the fact that The Joshua Tree marked the point where U2 made the jump from respected, moderately-successful modern rock band into icons. And like a lot of groups who made a similar leap, they did so by embracing the past. U2 took a lot of stick for all of a sudden fancying themselves as bluesmen, and Bono bore a lot of the brunt for that. But time (and their willingness to walk back their position after Rattle and Hum) seems to have healed that potential rift.

Mendelsohn: I really don’t have any contextual basis in which to place this album. Like a lot of the records released before “my time” from artists who still loom large, I can only look backward, which makes it difficult to see the events that led up to the release of the record, so I can’t really speak to the shift in character this album represented for the band. It is the same problem I have with Bob Dylan. Also, I don’t care all that much for U2’s music. Again, the same problem I have with Dylan.

What I do find fascinating about The Joshua Tree is the juxtaposition between the blues the band was now investigating and the ambient soundscapes that producer Brian Eno layered on to the background.

Klinger: I’ve always chalked that more up to other producer Daniel Lanois’ influence. That murky, fuzzy layer that provides a cushion throughout the album is something Lanois brought to their previous album, The Unforgettable Fire, and later brought to albums from Robbie Robertson’s solo debut to Bob Dylan’s Time Out of Mind to Neil Young’s recent Le Noise. It especially suits this record, though; it’s a sound as creamy and dark as a pint of Guinness. And it underscores what ultimately makes The Joshua Tree work: U2’s take on “the blues” is well removed from anything resembling purism. Had they attempted some sort of full-on aping of American roots music, they would have come across as dilettantes. But aside from the slide guitar intro on “Running to Stand Still” and a few harmonica solos here and there, most of the references seem subliminal, dog whistles to people who know what they’re listening for.

The group’s affinity for gargantuan grandiosity is still at the heart of The Joshua Tree. U2 just can’t avoid making the kind of anthems that make you feel like you’re standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon with outstretched arms, bellowing at the top of your lungs (this might explain why the group is still so popular with your “relevant” Christian types—more on that later). The first part of the album piles anthem upon anthem, meaning your arms are outstretched for a good twenty minutes. “Running to Stand Still” lets you rest your arms for a bit, but then it’s right back into the anthems until “Mothers of the Disappeared”, whereupon the album practically evaporates.

Mendelsohn: Ultimately, I think it’s the whole arms-outstretched-grandstanding and anthem-after-anthem mentality that turned me off of U2’s music. I understand why the critics and public-at-large would love it. There is an uplifting quality to it and, of course, it falls under the Grand Statement category that has underpinned the success of so many other albums on the Great List. U2 managed to pull off a rare accomplishment of walking the fine line between grandiosity and real artistic achievement. Far too often, a band will fall one way other the other. Be too artistic and only the critics will love you (i.e. TV on the Radio). Be too grandiose and you come off a bit (or completely) disingenuous (i.e. Creed), which won’t stop the public from loving you, because the public is stupid, but it will result in critical dismissal.

Klinger: Good point, and U2 managed to strike the perfect balance here. The post-punk guitar chatterings of the Edge are muted just enough to create a whole new mood, and there’s a nice blend of atmospherics and drive behind the Larry Mullen/Adam Clayton rhythm section. Of course, a lot of Bono’s lyrics are inspired by the Grandest of Grand Statements, the Bible. Literally every song on The Joshua Tree has Biblical themes and direct allusions to scripture, and even the album’s title seems to invoke an image of America as a promised land at best and a land of promise in any case.

Mainstream critics may not spend a lot of time on this, but The Joshua Tree is both an album about the faith journey and the doubt that for many, Bono clearly included, is part of that journey. Even if the scriptural allusions are simply a by-product of having that imagery tumbling around in your head, lines like “Jacob wrestled with the angel / And the angel was overcome”, taken from Genesis 32, are no accident. The bit about speaking with the tongue of angels in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” comes from 1 Corinthians, and it sounds nice enough until you realize that the rest of the verse says that to do so without love makes him no better than a clanging cymbal. That’s an idea that a lot of Christians would just as soon not hear, since it reminds us that Christianity calls us to do a lot of stuff that’s really freakin’ hard.

U2’s tendency to avoid happy-clappy platitudes is a big reason why U2 has never been fully embraced by Christian culture—that and, obviously, Bono’s love of cursing and cigarillos.

Mendelsohn: Ooo . . . yeah . . . uh . . . I’m going to gingerly step away from that landmine, Klinger. I’m of the opinion that it’s not rock ‘n roll if there isn’t a least a little devil worship. I like my rock like I like my politics—Jesus-free. Although, if the boys from Dublin had pushed the G-O-D button a little harder, they may have sold a few more records or, on the flip side, Bono would have become a monk and we would get to skip straight to Miles Davis on the Great List. But as much as I would love to see Bono take a vow of silence, I think that without U2, the ’90s alternative rock scene would look completely different. I get the feeling that they have had wide-ranging influence over a great many bands thanks in large part to the success of The Joshua Tree, even if they shot themselves in the foot with the whole Pop/Popmart fiasco.

Klinger: Oh, I doubt that going full Christian would have made them more popular, since a lot of people agree with the old canard that the devil has the best tunes. And while nobody actually seems to like Coldplay, they do somehow manage to sell a lot of records, so U2’s lasting influence isn’t at issue. And as for U2’s missteps as they’ve coped with their legacy, that’s the great thing about entering the canon—all your sins are washed away.