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This is the ninth in a series of Rock & Roll features I'm writing for this site. I'm a rock and roller, so this column is a way for me to feature a different album that I like, from different genres every month.
Some bands have been larger than life since day one... I think U2 is the epitome of the statement. When they came onto the scene in the late 70s and early 80s there unique blend a kind of post punk rock and roll with plenty of political statements in epic arena rock format, there was no doubt that they had the vision for something huge... and indeed they became something huge. After much artistic experimentation, having delved into electronica/dance and coming somewhat full circle back to the more driving rock and roll that made them famous originally, they're still huge, now 30+ years later.
I came to U2 unfortunately through a "Best of" collection, never my favorite way to first experience a band as they rarely give a truly accurate representation of what the band sounds like. When I came back to listen to the band's actual albums a few years later I found, as is typical, some of their best songs were not the hits at all. A good example is the album that really solidified them as one of the biggest bands of all time, an album that will actually have its 20th anniversary sometime in 2007 as well: The Joshua Tree. One of my favorite U2 albums, and not just because it contains my favorite U2 song of all time, "Where the Streets Have No Names", but also because it contains some of the best songs from the band's career and really works as a complete work. The Joshua Tree is not just one of the seminal U2 albums for me, but one of the seminal rock and roll albums of all time, and that it why I chose it for this month's feature.
A song that as I said, is my personal favorite and was also one of their biggest hits, opens the album. "Where the Streets Have No Name" is a driving rocker with layer upon layer of guitar tracks that sound both huge and spacious at the same time. It is a sound that is pretty unique to this band and the guitar style of U2 guitarist, the Edge, and makes this song sound so epic from the very first notes. Bono's soaring vocals push the song further in typical fashion and really set the tone for the album; anthemic, powerful and emotional.
There are actually three consecutive hits to open the album each one was huge and remain rock staples to this day. Following the opening track is "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", a similar song in its building, pulsing style, but more restrained and less aggressively driving. Again there are great lyrics that are put over the top by Bono and a great sing-along chorus. The third of the big hits to start off this album might be in their top 5 hits of all time: "With or Without You". A slow burning ballad it serves almost as the climax to the two previous songs when listened to in order because it builds and builds, just like the previous two, but eventually explodes with Bono's huge wailing vocals in a sort of emotional outpouring that is just spine tingling.... A great love song, or is it? I always found it interesting how this song is viewed as although the lyrics are confessional and emotional they're a bit darker than is evident on the first listen and I think this song is often misinterpreted, but it's still a great song none the less.
"Bullet the Blue Sky" follows and is also one of my favorite U2 songs of all time with it's howling guitars, hypnotic pulse an darker outlook. It's a bit different than some of the bigger hits that the band produced, and that's part of the reason I like it as it's a good contrast to their more straightforward pop moments. Plus it has great poetic imagery that ranges from haunting to spoke word, really creating a great feel throughout. "Running to Stand Still" is soft and sorrowful throughout with it's soft piano, guitar accents and drum beats, but there is a subtle country twinge in it's guitar licks and closing harmonica that really add depth. "Red Hill Mining Town" is one another one of those standout songs in my mind. A powerfully emotional song with a slower beat, and ringing guitar parts, but it's once again Bono's vocals that really put this song over the top with a massive "bring the audience to tears" type chorus. I'm also fond of the simple backing vocals on the chorus that really seem to add just the right accent and touch of a choir like effect... Great song that could easily sound melodramatic, but I think is executed perfectly and serves as a great midpoint for the album.
The rest of the album has some definite highlights as well. There's the moving rocker "In God's Country", which is catchy and a bit more stripped down than some of the anthems, but still sounds huge. "Trip Through Your Wires" has hints of blues, country and rock and roll roots in its swagger and it's harmonica bursts, with lyrics to increase that feel. "One Tree Hill" hints at some of the more dance type songs that U2 would really explore during the 90s, but also has sweet flowing lyric and a great catchy feel and chorus. "Exit" starts with a haunting almost gospel-esque feel, but slowly morphs, building from complete subtlety to a massive sound with pulsing drums and gritty guitar layers, with an almost proto punk rough edge, that grind and surge back and forth and echo a mystic feel that really seems unlike U2 if you're used to listening to purely the hits... Another one of my highlights... AND then the closer... "Mothers of the Disappeared" again has elements of the more experimental U2, but pulls back into a soft counterpoint to "Exit". The two songs compliment each other well and kind of echo elements back and forth, the latter sounding a bit like a subtle "clouds parting" type of climax to the first, and to the album, building into massive layers of sound by the end before trailing off to close.
Although this album will surely remain one of rock's legendary albums for producing some of U2's major hits, I actually think it works better as a complete work and is just a great album to listen to. There are a variety of styles, but they all sound firmly like U2, never sounding out of place or out of character, even in their more artistic moments. It's actually a pretty dark album, with a feeling of sorrow flowing throughout and a sense of weight... these are heavy ideas... but they work and the band sounds determined, thought provoking and epic from start to finish, never completely melodramatic. With all U2 albums there are some great lyrical lines that have great imagery and often political or social weight and this a good example of the band's skill at song and lyric writing. At the same time though, it is an extremely personal album and it's very easy to see one's own soul in these songs, even when they're at their most epic and I'm sure thats part of why I think it's so great.
Listening to The Joshua Tree in it's entirety, I think there is more to why this was the album that really made U2 huge. It's not just because it has three of their biggest hits. It's because from start to finish it's a great album that really shows a band with a vision and will to change the world... and the did... and continue to do so to this day.
If you're completely new to U2, then this album is a good place to start as I think it's one of their best. I almost wish this was the album (or perhaps War or Boy) that I had first discovered U2 with because songs like "Bullet the Blue Sky", "Exit" and "Red Hill Mining Town" paint a slightly different picture than the "Best Of" collections. You can also start at the beginning with Boy, which is also quite good, but I'd recommend staying away from the compilation sets with this band especially as they really seem to be a bad representation in my mind.
If you're already a U2 fan, then I'd find it hard to believe you don't know of this album...and if by some strange twist of fate you don't... you call yourself a fan? Better get listening...
You can purchase this album directly from Amazon here: The Joshua Tree