Given all the overt cinematic references on The Unforgettable Fire, along with the band’s penchant for glory on ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, it was only a matter of time before U2 put their heads together to attempt a fully-fledged narrative drama, and The Joshua Tree was a rock opera in all but name: the pulsating, piercing soundscapes decorating the American backdrop with a collection of shimmering portraits dedicated to the history of the American plains.
Bono made some tentative gestures towards America on the band’s first four efforts, but it wasn’t until The Joshua Tree that the group decided to leave the Irish weather behind them completely for more sprawling mythology that had weathered great change and greater turmoil. Fittingly, the Californian desert seemed to showcase the band’s spiritual and philosophical journey in one spacious area.
But even with the advent of a narrative soaking the album, the album never quite makes sense, which is strange, considering that ambient guru Brian Eno overlooks the production. Yet just because the album never quite hits that sense of euphoria like Dark Side of The Moon creates doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments of extraordinary insight and beauty, making it one of the most intellectual rock albums from the 1980s.
Even if the themes are a little heavy-handed, the band have set the pieces in incredible fashion, with the earlier tracks laying out the choruses that frequent the band’s stadium shows, and the later tracks lacing the treatise together as one impressive whole. It’s the sound of a band presenting themselves at their most accessible, yet their most impenetrable, combining romantic tales of yore with a barren, brusque production design that pieces the entire album as a journey into the human psyche.
Depending on the critic’s tastes, they may show a preference towards one side over the other, but there’s no denying that whether they veer into pop or cerebral rock, there’s a consistency to the work the band have rarely managed to maintain in the 35 years since. The nightmarish landscapes of ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ close the album out on a strangely forlorn note, as Bono descends into perpetual madness, outlining the horrors and great evils the world is capable of.
There’s no doubt that the first two songs (‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ and ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’) are the most immediate, featuring infectious, chiming guitars that soak into the mix. The Edge is the obvious influence, but there’s no denying the fact that Adam Clayton helps to shape the music, as his bass choppy bass pivot’s off Bono’s voice on ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’. Indeed, all four men seem determined to flesh out the world Bono has laid out for them, from the bustling fanfare of ‘In God’s Country’ to the more sombre textures of ‘One Tree Hill’, purportedly written after Bono lost a close friend of his.
In retrospect, this plays out as more of a Bono solo album than a bonafide U2 album, largely because his vocals, themes and lyrics dominate the work. And yet many of the more impactful harmonies are The Edge’s, especially on ‘With or Without You’, the most romantic number U2 had yet released. U2 shine as an outfit on the propulsive ‘Trip Through Your Wires’, a formidable blues number that is faintly reminiscent of the harmonica heavy rockers The Yardbirds released.
For an album that’s so heavily indebted to rock, there’s very little on the album, and the closest thing to an out and out rocker is ‘Exit’, the album’s most insubstantial number, and certainly one of the band’s weakest. The strongest moments are the more lingering ones, as The Edge avoids any temptation to plunge into the mix, choosing to record a collection of chiming, single notes. In every way, the album is a considerable achievement, presenting humility instead of haughtiness, and narrative instead of boisterousness. “Notes actually do mean something,” the guitarist recalled. “They have power. I think of notes as being expensive. You don’t just throw them around. I find the ones that do the best job and that’s what I use. I suppose I’m a minimalist instinctively.”
Eno adds his colour occasionally, but the narrative and the craft belongs to Bono. And by avoiding many of the trappings of the decade, the band issued an album that sounds prescient, creating a form of artistry that was committed, central and deeply spiritual in its resolve. “I went in the other day and we sung The Joshua Tree for the very first time in 30 years,” Bono recalled in 2017.“I was really surprised at how it sounded and how relevant, really, it still was with what’s going in on the world. There seemed to be a connection. It’s a special album of songs, for sure.”