My love for U2 is not a secret. The live album, Under a Blood Red Sky, was the first tape I ever owned. If you’re observant, you might notice I try to fit a U2 song on every playlist (unless it’s totally irrelevant to the theme). U2, as far as I’m concerned, is one of, if not the greatest bands of all time. But, I’m also a fan, so my opinion is hardly objective. So, in the interest of musical journalism, revisiting The Joshua Tree sounds like a good idea. I will listen and dissect the album, track by track, to see if The Joshua Tree still holds value now, or if it’s just a throwback to the late 80s we Gen Xers so love.
This is Retro Music Review: The Joshua Tree
Where The Streets Have No Name
Where the Streets Have No Name starts with a slow keyboard that fades away after a few seconds. Soon after, we hear The Edge’s guitar, playing a riff that sounds so simple. Still, we hear an unexplained complexity. Next, Bono sings in D Major, a song about anonymity. What about the lyrics? Where The Streets Have No Name is an anthem about seeing each other as people, not by their income or by their religion.
Blunt honesty, Where The Streets Have No Name was never my favorite track on The Joshua Tree. However, over the last 30 years, Where The Streets Have No Name has grown on me quite a bit. Again, the lyrics, about seeing people as people, and not as a label of rich, poor, protestant, Muslim, Catholic, Buddhist, etcetera speaks to me. A beautiful and timeless message if ever there was one.
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For
I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For starts with a short, uptempo intro. A few seconds in, Bono’s vocals enter as a one-man gospel choir. We hear a tale of someone who searches the Earth and beyond for answers but has yet to find what they seek. As far as the instruments, they’re simple for the most part. Adam Clayton called the song a bit of a one-note groove. The Edge called the song ‘Eye of the Tiger‘ played by a reggae band. Still, the drumming of Larry Mullen Jr is not to be dismissed. In fact, his rather complex drumming holds the song together.
I loved this song when I first heard it. I love this song today. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For always excited me when played on the radio. The song still excites me when I hear it in some random fashion. Yes, it’s simple. No, it’s not the best U2 song ever written, but it’s got a good groove (even if it is a one note groove), and puts the listener into a trance.
With or Without You
Ah, the ballad they played on Friends when Rachel and Ross broke up the first time! With or Without You tugs at our heartstrings. The song has a sort of ambiance to its sound and boats a simple arrangement. The lyrics show the struggle between Bono’s work life and his domestic life, though some interpret the song with a more spiritual context.
To be honest, while I enjoy the vibe of the song, With or Without you has always just kind of been there, nothing that special. With or Without You might be a great song for some, but to me, it’s just OK – just a filler.
Bullet The Blue Sky
Bullet the Blue Sky is the most politically charged song on The Joshua Tree. Starting with a drumbeat that resembles a gunshot, the listener immediately gets thrown out of the ambiance from With or Without You. The song features the first proper guitar solo on the album, as well as an extended monologue by Bono (which he expands upon in Rattle and Hum). The lyrics tell of a war zone, where the commoners are pushed and bullied by two warring factions. All the while, people are just trying to live their lives.
Bullet the Blue Sky might be the most hard-rocking song in U2’s catalog. It’s certainly in my top five favorite U2 songs. So, with that said, I can’t look at this song objectively. I just can’t. Luckily, I don’t think I have to. Bullet the Blue Sky has been lauded by critics. Rolling Stone calls the song “incisive and explosive.” NBHAP says the song still has not lost its power and relevance even 30 years later. Mojo Magazine listed Bullet the Blue Sky as one of the most epic songs ever recorded. Bullet the Blue Sky has stood the test of time as a powerful anthem against injustice.
Running to Stand Still
Running to Stand Still gets overshadowed by Bullet the Blue Sky. We hear a nice, mellow ballad after rock song about a civil war. We almost forget Running to Stand Still even exists. But we shouldn’t.
Running to Stand Still talks about the heroin outbreak in Ireland circa the mid-80s, and is almost just as sad as Bullet the Blue Sky. We hear hopelessness and despair. We see a picture of people trapped in something more powerful than themselves. We hear the cries of people who need help, but don’t know how to get that help. Running to Stand Still might be one of the most overlooked tracks on the Joshua Tree, but go back and listen to it.
Red Hill Mining Town
Red Hill Mining Town was inspired by the UK miners’ strike of 84/85. The song tells a story miners in an average mining town, just trying to live and provide for their families. The lyrics are pretty straightforward, and the instrumentation is pretty basic. While the song itself is a little catchy, on first listen, Red Hill Mining Town just doesn’t seem that spectacular.
Oh, but Red Hill Mining Town still boasts some amazing poetics. Look at the second verse:
The glass is cut
The bottle run dry
Our love runs cold
In the caverns of the night
We’re wounded by fear
Injured in doubt
I can lose myself
You I can’t live without
In verse 2, we see a myriad of feelings. Desperation, doubt, fear, and desire all make an appearance. We hear the speaker turning towards the bottle when they can afford it. We see the speaker express fear for their wellbeing. We also see the reason the speaker puts up with it all – the love of their partner. The person the speaker cannot do without. Pure poetry!
In God’s Country
Originally, Bono didn’t really know if he wrote In God’s Country for Ireland or the United States. Still, in a radio interview, he dedicated the song to the Statue of Liberty. Regardless, In God’s Country tells a story of a land that tries, and yet fails at providing liberty to its people.
The music of In God’s Country is fine, but just kind of there. The band themselves recognize it’s not their best work. Music promoter Bill Graham, a known U2 apologist, said the band was just “cruising” on the song. In God’s Country is the weakest song on The Joshua Tree. Whatever, it’s still a catchy song.
Trip Through Your Wires
Now we come to the part of the album where Bono learns how to play the harmonica. Ok, ok, that’s a little mean, but I did say I was going to try to be objective while revisiting the Joshua Tree! In all seriousness, Trip Through Your Wires is a blues genre experiment. Reminiscent of early Rolling Stones and BB King, Trip Through Your Wires provides a simple message through a simple song. And again, lots of harmonicas.
One Tree Hill
One Tree Hill stands out on The Joshua Tree, but not in a good way. The song just doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the album. One Tree Hill sounds like something from a jam band and not a standard U2 song. Although One Tree Hill does not seem to fit with the rest of the album, that doesn’t make it a bad song. In fact, One Tree Hill is a phenomenal song.
One Tree Hill is about life and death. About how one can be alive on a Monday, and dead on a Tuesday. Particularly influenced by the death of Greg Carroll, a close friend of the band, the lyrics are heartfelt and reflective. One Tree Hill was a labor of love and a song that should be heard.
Exit is the creepiest song on The Joshua Tree. Inspired by Norman Mailer’s book, The Executioner’s Song, Exit makes us cringe as we explore the life of a killer. The lyrics show a deeply disturbed man. The music starts out quiet, and progression to a loud and violent tone only exasperates the creep factor of Exit.
Don’t listen to this song before you go to sleep, you might have nightmares.
Mothers of the Disappeared
A simple ballad, Mothers of the Disappeared talks about two groups: Mothers of the Plaza De Mayo and COMADRES. Both groups, one in Chili and One in Argentina, are a group of mothers who have had their children forcibly taken from them. The lyrics are emotional and the saddest lyrics on the entire album.
The sounds of Mothers of the Disappeared give the listener a horrific feeling. The ghastly background vocalists sing slow and deep mouth noises, like a ghost. Clayton’s bass line and Mullen’s drums provide a perfect but subtle heartbeat rhythm – sometimes speeding up to emulate a racing heart.
Is it worth Revisiting The Joshua Tree?
Upon revisiting The Joshua Tree, the one thing that sticks out is Bono’s passion for social justice. Sure, Bono expresses this passion in earlier songs, such as Sunday, Bloody Sunday, and (Pride) In the Name of Love, but the songs on the Joshua Tree seem more focused on fighting injustice than on previous albums. Almost every song on The Joshua Tree talks about evil, and how to fight evil
Another thing I notice while revisiting The Joshua Tree, U2 tries to experiment more. We hear a gospel choir, a jam band, and even a blues number, all from a post-punk rock band. It’s always impressive when a band tries to stretch their songs.
The last thing I notice while revisiting The Joshua Tree, the songs are not as good as I remember them. Still, The Joshua Tree will hold a special place in my heart. Songs like Bullet the Blue Sky and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For will always excite me. So in my mind, it’s still worth revisiting The Joshua Tree.