The Joshua Tree – U2 (1987)

The Joshua Tree album cover
The Joshua Tree album cover

Anyone who’d been following U2 since their beginning, would know that their fifth (studio) album was the beginning of superstardom. From The Joshua Tree on, U2 went from scruffy college rock favorite to big rock superstars on the order of Bruce Springsteen or Van Halen.

Produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, The Joshua Tree would feature less artsy ambient noises and more all out anthem rock, with big hooks and more of Bono’s wailing voice. It was a conflicting album in many ways, its overall message is one of praise and condemnation of the American way, while being deeply influenced by its music and culture.

To top it all off , the added layer of implied spirituality made Bono a (pretentious) holy man in the eyes of some critics and fans. The expanded scope gained the band many new followers thanks to big uplifting songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name”, a song that marks an increasing fascination with all things black and American.

The big sounds-capes crafted for this record are in keeping with Lanois and Eno’s production style, a style that favored big vistas. The compressed wind up drama of “With or Without You” or “One Tree Hill” perfectly framed Bono’s voice.  The Edge’s guitar no longer fronted the wall of sound of the past, but still retained some of the eerie atmospherics of previous work. Some of the ambiance was due to Mark Flood who was the recording engineer for The Joshua Tree sessions. Flood would be joined by familiar names in the studio like Steve Lillywhite.

This is by far the biggest of U2’s albums, due to its diversity and very strong compositions. Irish and American soul influences play a pivotal part in shaping the band’s evolution. No longer just a Irish protest band, U2 became the face of international humanitarian issues, or Bono’s causes gained new-found notoriety thanks to the band’s rising stature. U2 had become the poster boys of international humanitarian rock .

In condemnation of greed and the international corporate structure, U2 began to resort to gospel influences as musical salvation. It was not surprising that a few of The Joshua Tree‘s songs were widely admired by black church choir directors. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” had all the energy of an old gospel song. Like Daniel Lanois’ “The Maker”, “I Still…”  had the effect of being instantly vintage. The actual song featured a gospel choir-like chorus and would be replicated in concert with a real choir (Harlem Gospel Choir and New Voices of Freedom) at a 1987 concert in New York City. Oddly enough, many church communities were well aware of U2 and openly embraced Bono’s message of peace, love and tolerance.

“With or Without You” became U2’s first US #1 hit. From there they were as big as Bruce Springsteen and would not cool off for nearly a decade. Re-issued and remastered on a few occasions, The Joshua Tree has multiple cover style variations. All of them feature the band in a Anton Corbijn photograph in the Mojave Desert. Like the album itself, the cover is considered one of the best cover designs of all time (really?). The band is still making compelling music, but has resorted to gimmicks to distribute it lately. This would have been unimaginable for the U2 of 1987. Thats the U2 that a lot of fans still miss.

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