Sublime Time: The Joshua Tree at 25
March 15, 2012 · Print This Article
Before there was the deservedly beloved Achtung Baby, there was The Joshua Tree. Before U2 were reinventing themselves, they were creating everlasting greatness. Before there was post-modern kitsch and contradiction to wrestle with, there was spiritual unrest and personal relationship uncertainty to wrestle with. Before U2 even had a notion of assembling their greatest hits, they were creating that canon with an album of greatest hits.
For those of us that were there, this was a sublime time. This was the Beatles getting off of the plane in the States. Oh sure, U2 wasn’t new to us or to the US at this time, but this U2, this upped the ante. This was a collection of songs and songwriting that was consistently magnificent and transcendent throughout the entire album. This was rock ‘n roll of the highest order. One listen to this album and you knew – this was Revolver for the Beatles, Beggars Banquet for the Stones, Bringing It All Back Home by Dylan, Tommy for The Who, Born to Run, Purple Rain…
Long gone was the naivety and innocence of the band members’ late teen years and the mullets of their early to mid-twenties. Gone was the style and fashion of post-punk and New Wave. Gone was big hair (only to be replaced by all-one-length, shoulder-length hair, sans the hair products).
Once “With or Without You” (the video as well as their first single from this album) hit the airwaves, the pop culture style of such acts as The Cure, Echo & the Bunnymen, Duran Duran and The Smiths was replaced by the ponytail, denim jeans, cool patterned, long-sleeved, untucked, collared shirts with leather vests draped over them and headwear and footwear that looked lived-in and straight out of the Old West.
U2 had steeped themselves in the imagery of the American Southwest during this period and Bono and The Edge in particular looked as indigenous to the deserts of Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico as much as any native son from those regions. If Achtung Baby was the sound of four men chopping down The Joshua Tree, The Joshua Tree was the sound of four men burying New Wave.
For those who have felt the excitement of anticipating a new U2 release for a decade or two now, there was nothing like that feeling of anticipation in the Spring of 1987, a quarter of a century ago this month.
I was just a teen, well into my second semester of my junior year in high school and hating the social scene at my school, feeling very detached. Music—U2’s music especially—was my solace, my escape. A classmate and I were big fans of the band and neither of us could wait for this one to be released. I remember that my friend went out and bought the album a day before I did, a day prior than I thought it was to be released. All these years later, I can still recall his first words to me that next day at school.
“Bono is Dylan on this thing. He’s playing harmonica on this album.”
Harmonica? From Boy to now The Joshua Tree, where the hell did the harmonica fit in their music? I had to get this album. Immediately.
I purchased it, and for the next eighteen months or so, this CD took me on a journey unlike any other album before or since. It consumed me and of course I consumed it. Daily. With vigor. And so did the world. U2 was quickly catapulted into the stratosphere. The band that was always arriving had arrived. Pop culture was no longer shaping them, they were shaping it.
They became a household name with this album and no longer just keen dwellers of college charts on back pages of rock magazines. Indoor arenas were no longer large enough for them and their fans.
The harmonica was there, indeed. But the anticipatory refrain of the opening organ on “Streets” set the tone. That was followed by the flickering guitar sound of The Edge which was followed by the pulsating bass line from Adam and the crescendo of drums from Larry, all culminating with the first that we hear of Bono’s voice on this album (fully mature at this point, if it wasn’t already) pronouncing his restlessness and the journey began—a yearning, searching, joyful, raucous, heartwrenching, thrilling, pulsating and, at times, somber journey that wouldn’t end until we heard the haunting, fading sounds of “Mothers of the Disappeared.”
The desert imagery throughout this album was so damn cohesive. There were the desert plains, the desert skies, the howling winds and stinging rains, rivers running and then soon running dry. There was the heat and the dust, the rust and the waterless wells, throats that were dry, sunlight on my face, caverns in the night and desert roses that called out like sirens to you and me.
The imagery was desolate and yet things grew, just like in the desert itself, as Bono has pointed out. And of course there was that damn tree – standing there majestically for the band to pose in front of, remaining there for years for us fans to figuratively, metaphorically (and sometimes literally) bow down to and relish. If Joshua pointed to the promised land, fans of the band were having none of it. This, THIS was the promised land—this album, this tree.
The Edge stated later in life that he dearly recalled how much music meant to him at the age of seventeen, and so he could relate to the feeling that his music gave his teenage fans. I know the feeling. I was weeks away from turning seventeen when this album, one of rock’s greatest, most unified albums of all time, was released.
U2 successfully chopped down The Joshua Tree a few years after its release, and I don’t blame them at all. They had to go dream it all up again and I’m glad that they did. But if you listen closely to the howling wind, in the caverns of the night, through the stinging rain, I believe you can hear her haunting melodies, flickering notes and pulsating rhythms. I can. For like a siren she calls to me. –Greg Melton