Monday, November 26, 2012

Retracing the Hits: Why I'm Ambivalent About U2's The Joshua Tree

The Good: Some great lyrics, Some truly amazing songs, Some distinctive instrumentals, Some great vocals
The Bad: A surprising amount of mush, Frontloading, Short
The Basics: A good album, but not nearly as impressive as where the band went later on musically, vocally or even lyrically, The Joshua Tree is more erratic than most admit.

As I increase my musical knowledge and listen to and review classic and current albums, I occasionally find myself in a bit of a quandary. The pretty standard quandary for me runs into reviewing albums that either have critical acclaim or tremendous sales history (or worse, both!), yet I find myself unenthusiastic about. I suppose I learned something by the reaction to my review of Alanis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill (reviewed here!) but I think having a principled set of standards to review by enhances my abilities and the consistency of my reviews. Sometimes, I can even acknowledge up front that an album might have been groundbreaking in its time, but simply did not hold up over time to be as timeless as many have claimed.

That latter concept is where I am at with The Joshua Tree, the album that arguably made U2 the biggest band in the world in the mid-1980s. I can hear how it is a reaction to the synthpop of the early 1980s and offered an alternative sound to the emerging grunge, but largely The Joshua Tree is a boring album. Before my throat is jumped down by angry fans, I will be one of the first to openly and happily acknowledge that the first three tracks - "Where The Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and "With Or Without You" - are timeless pop-rock classics which deserve their status. I grew up on "With Or Without You" and after listening to The Joshua Tree I think it's quite probable that U2 deserves the blame - or credit, depending upon one's perspective, I suppose - for giving birth to popular Christian rock. Between The Joshua Tree and Amy Grant's Heart In Motion, the commercial viability of Christian rock exploded. And with that acknowledgment in mind, that those three tracks are truly timeless, I'll say again: the rest of the album is fairly boring. I have listened to The Joshua Tree now twelve times and when it is on, it is inoffensive, subtle light rock that leaves virtually no impression after the three tracks that have made it onto virtually every collection U2 has produced.

With eleven songs clocking in at 50:15, The Joshua Tree is almost undeniably U2's vision of what a pop-rock album might be. All of the lyrics were written by Bono and the band wrote the music, played the instruments, and provided the vocals. Only production credits lack members' of U2's participation. It does appear to be a true U2 audio experience. And that is a good thing as U2 has something to say. The Joshua Tree is a religious/spiritual album that tackles political issues and deeply personal ones, which seems to insure that it will be pretty much considered thematically timeless and on that count, it is hard to argue.

After all, unless the U.S. suddenly becomes a pacifistic nation, "Bullet The Blue Sky" will remain relevant. U2 sings about desire ("With Or Without You"), longing for fulfillment ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"), political particpation/rebellion ("Running To Stand Still") and temptation ("Trip Through Your Wires"). The Joshua Tree is filled with imagery that often references god or the bible and the group has an unabashed reverence for the world around them on such tracks as "In God's Country" and "One Tree Hill."

And it is hard to fault the lyrics for the mushy second half of the album. After all, it is there that the band thrills with such poetry as ". . . And in our world a heart of darkness, a firezone / Where poets speak their hearts, then bleed for it / Jara sang his song a weapon, in the hands of love / You know his blood still cries from the ground / It runs like a river to the sea" ("One Tree Hill"). U2 has some pretty impressive diction for a rock band and Bono has an excellent sense of poetics, which enriches all of The Joshua Tree. The lines make allusions, create imagery and give a strong sense of being a part of the world and looking at it objectively.

Perhaps this sense of dichotomy is no better captured than on "Running To Stand Still." On that track, U2 makes a call to action by tying together observations on how restrained and censored the world is, with a call for civil disobedience. The group challenges the status quo with lines like "Sweet the sin / But bitter the taste in my mouth / I see seven towers / But I only see one way out / You got to cry without weeping / Talk without speaking / Scream without raising your voice, you know / I took the poison, from the poison stream, / Then I floated out of here" ("Running To Stand Still"). This is a great sense of epiphany that is carried through the lines and it has a timeless quality to its lines that makes it easy to see how it could resonate with all audiences.

But few songs in the English language capture the full thrill and uncertainty of love and relationships - whether terrestrial or divine - like "With Or Without You." Perhaps one of the top ten singles of all time, "With Or Without You" is an amazing poem that is beautifully presented with an instantly recognizable theme. Indeed, few songs stick in the mind like "With Or Without You" and virtually everyone can hear Bono sing in their mind, "Through the storm we reach the shore / You give it all but I want more / And I'm waiting for you / With or without you . . . I can't live / With or without you." The reason it holds up so well over twenty years later is that it is direct, soulful and has a clear message that is clearly and intriguingly presented. Bono sings perfectly in a way that highlights the lyrics and makes one immediately engaged.

This is in stark contrast to a song like "Exit," which seems to have passion and drumming and strumming that accents genuine emotions. But they overcome the vocals in a way that obscures any meaning to the song. Even "Bullet The Blue Sky," which has an anti-warfare theme I fully support and admire, lacks a coherent tune. As a result, the lines are obscured and frequently lost.

Despite that, most of the songs have competent - at worst - instrumentals and generally decent vocals. Bono can sing and the rest of the group backs him up well with the supporting vocals and instrumentals. Largely, the music on The Joshua Tree is very simple and direct guitar, bass, and drums. The songs are generally softer rock, so the guitars are often subdued like on "Mothers Of The Disappeared" or more supportive to the rich vocals, as they are on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."

There may be many who consider The Joshua Tree a perfect album and it is good. But it is severely frontloaded and pretty much the last half of the album is musically indistinct. The songs are not catchy, the tunes are unmemorable. They are largely instrumental soft rock white noise. Reading the lyrics is often more powerful than listening to the last half of the album. Moreover, the last half lacks Bono's attempts to do soaring, anthemic vocals. He mumbles his way through songs like "Exit" and "Mothers Of The Disappeared" leaving little or no impression on the listener.

If you grew up on The Joshua Tree, it might have truly great nostalgic value. If you grew up before it, perhaps The Joshua Tree reinvigorated your love of rock and roll. But for someone who grew up on the singles from this album but probably spent more time with U2's later works, this album is strangely unimpressive.

The best song is "With Or Without You," the low point is "Exit."

For other U2 works, please check out my reviews of:
The Best Of 1980 – 1990 & The Singles
The Best Of 1990 – 2000 & The Singles


For other music reviews, be sure to visit my Music Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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