Saturday, September 19, 2020

The Joshua Tree (1987)

I was pretty much fed up with U2 by 1987, and thus largely missed out on this album beyond the inescapable, which is to say I actively avoided it. It's kind of strange when I put together the pieces. I had been quite enamored with the band just a few years earlier, especially after seeing them live in 1983 (though an arena appearance two years later on basically the same material was much more anemic). Coproducers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois are two I happen to trust on sight by brand, in spite of the many known problems associated with either and both. And I am nutty for the Pet Shop Boys cover of "Where the Streets Have No Name." I have heard it hundreds of times more than the U2 original. Recently I saw someone on the internet claim that The Joshua Tree has the best three-song opening sequence on an album in history—"best three-song opening sequence on an album" could only be an internet exercise but somehow that sent me back finally to attempt some assessment of U2's monster mega album, which ultimately moved some 25 million units. Others can argue for it being their greatest; All That You Can't Leave Behind (also produced by Eno and Lanois btw) is still my perhaps eccentric answer to that question. I will give it up to the original internet poster for the first three songs on The Joshua Tree. Pretty damn good 1-2-3 all right. I always liked "Streets," as I said (and who cares if it takes more than a minute for the first song on the album to properly kick in?). More recently "With or Without You" and especially "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" have started to hit with some force.

Wordy wordy titles! Let me get that out of my system—especially for a band that goes by two conjoined characters. Then let me just admit "Still Haven't Found" works on me in a way somewhat beyond my understanding, let alone my ability to control. Sure, you can read it as moon-spoon-June treacle on a level: "Woe is me I just want a girlfriend / better job / new car / whatever," the mewling singer might be wailing on casual listens (casual listens turning into forced auditions in the spring of 1987 when it became a #1 hit). Like, maybe he needs to get his credit rating up? But if you've ever had the feeling you still haven't found what you're looking for, and have had it for years, then you will know what this song is about. Not sunglasses. It's coming from an emo place comparable to the one that produced R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts," for example (and too many plain phony power ballads). It is just more artful and on-the-nose about it.

The rest of the album is varying degrees of professional and often compelling wankery. It's not hard to let it play to the end, even if only fragments of hooks distinguish themselves here and there. Eno's presence is felt in various small ways, not always good. The loose-wristed guitar playing of The Edge ("The Edge," Nelson laugh: "Ha Ha") often strays toward a More Songs About Buildings and Food feel. "Running to Stand Still" has slide guitar pasted on like the price sticker on the cover of a book. That reminds me of the themes attempted here, which I think it's appropriate to quote Wikipedia on: "through sociopolitically conscious lyrics embellished with spiritual imagery, it contrasts the group's antipathy for the 'real America' with their fascination with the 'mythical America.'" Yeah, OK, no thanks. Already heard all about it from Greil Marcus on the Band. This pompous bombast haunts it all and not easy to see past it—I'm not even sure how much I'm going to listen to The Joshua Tree ever again (beyond "Still Haven't Found," the new semi-intermittent regular). But it's not a bad album. I can't see why anyone would call it a greatest anything ever, except even my own touch points with it can feel strangely more vital than ever now. That's something.

1 comment:

  1. I have this memory that classic rock AOR radio used to do these three-song supersets, rarely the first three tracks on an album, but three great jams by one act. I used love these, and would like to think of them as suites, with a distinct intro, main theme, and outro, and modeled many mixtapes in this fashion over the years.

    Even as an early Springsteen adopter, an unreconstructed fan devotee to his '70s music, I'd developed enough ambivalence ab his music by the late-'80s, that I found satires of Bono and Bruce's wounded bombast hilarious.

    I liked the sound of U2's first album, Boy, 1980, although not quite as much as I liked the sound of Echo and the Bunnymen's debut from the same year. From there over the long haul I have come to respect U2 as a pretty good singles band, but never grew attached to any of their albums, and found their post-punk do-good stadium rock '80s heyday benign but still kind of off-putting.

    That said I also know others that are religious ab U2, the way others can be ab Bruce, seen every concert, start to finish, in every way.