A Closer Look: U2’s “The Joshua Tree” (1987)

“You gotta cry without weeping/Talk without speaking/Scream without raising your voice…”-U2, “Running to Stand Still”

So the Dublin lads have finally made it–what’s widely regarded as their (first) peak. They’ve exploded in popularity with 1985’s “Live Aid” show. Bono’s done some traveling, the Edge has written a movie soundtrack. So…now what?

The album catches U2 in the perfect position. They’re still following suit with their signature lyrics about the world at large, but now they’ve got an established fanbase, following and reputation to give the music an even wider span of reach. It’s easily accessible, enjoyable rock with a message.

The success of the album is twofold. U2’s natural talent and persistence as musicians created a perfect storm with the global climate that was the backdrop for this album. U2 managed to incorporate huge ideas of foreign unrest, struggling and striking workers, drug addiction, death and war into art, while experimenting with new musical ideas of blues, folk, Americana. It spoke perfectly to its time of release.

The record has a fragment of every sound U2 had explored previously. “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Exit” have the anger and roughness of “Boy” and “War.” “One Tree Hill,” “Mothers of the Disappeared,” “Running to Stand Still” and “With or Without You” have the smoothness and subtlety of “The Unforgettable Fire.”

“Where the Streets Have no Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” have the faithful joy of “October,” and “Trip Through Your Wires,” “Red Hill Mining Town” and “In God’s Country” give a glimpse into the bluesy folk-rock direction that “Rattle and Hum” is about to take.

The album is arguably the band’s most consistent to date. It finally finds each member playing with confidence in their own abilities, as well as their confidence and trust in their abilities to play to the strengths of other members and with confidence in each other as musicians. They’re finally hitting that groove of working well within a sound.

From the swells of “With or Without You,” the hymn of sorrow and heartbreak of broken Argentinian families of “Mothers of the Disappeared,” the rough-and-tumble grit of “Trip Through Your Wires” and the exuberance of “Where the Streets Have no Name,” Adam sounds suave and sophisticated, Larry sounds crisp and sharp, The Edge sounds fresh and innovative and Bono delivers some of his best vocal performances to date.

The instrumentals here help set the mood for the message of each song, too. For example, the opener, “Where the Streets Have no Name,” is such a victorious start to the album. It’s a triumphant romp from U2’s newfound peak of fame, soaring above the streets and inviting listeners to join them on a journey of jangling guitars, pulsating bass, driving drums and high-reaching vocals from a young, energetic and adventurous Bono.

The simplicity and playful tone of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” disguises a message of yearning and longing for what has become a recurring theme for U2’s albums; that of wanting to find the beauty and kindness of the Lord in a fallen humanity. This theme quickly becomes the centerpiece on “The Joshua Tree”; that of wanting to find goodness in a world where men so often cause evil and corruption to come upon their fellow men.

“Running to Stand Still” follows the theme of heroin abuse set in “The Unforgettable Fire.” This time, instead of a massive and unsure ballad on the verge of a breakdown, this song is a slow, sad, subdued and subtle narrative of an unnamed woman roaming through the streets “with eyes painted red” to deliver “white-golden pearls/stolen from the sea” and ultimately “suffer the needle chill.”

Bono’s voice barely rises above a whisper in delivery, and The Edge is so quiet that I can almost see him crouched over the piano in a dark corner, barely plucking along. A bizarre beauty is taken from the song; it sounds so hopeless, but in a much more emotionally resigned way than the pleading and erratic “Bad” does.

“Bullet the Blue Sky” paints a picture of rage with vocals that are roared by Bono and guitar riffs mimicking the din of an airplane from The Edge. Larry’s drumming hasn’t been this aggressive since “War,” and he sounds like a madman slamming his fists through a wall as he drives the track in.

The sheer amount of noise this track kicks up mirrors Bono’s emotional reaction to the American economic blockade of Central America. His spoken lines at the end of the track cut razor-sharp as he personifies America both as a beacon of destruction and a wide-armed place of amnesty.

The folky straining and swelling of “Red Hill Mining Town” finds Bono singing about those affected by the miner strikes in England from the economic cuts of Margaret Thatcher, singing about how “We’re wounded by fear, injured in doubt/I can lose myself but I can’t live without/Cause you keep me holding on.”

“One Tree Hill” is a gentle ode to a friend U2 lost too young, Greg Carroll. The track pays tribute through using themes of Carroll’s home culture, the Maori tribe of New Zealand. Lyrically, the song reflects on Bono’s trip with Greg up to One Tree Hill, the highest island in New Zealand, and on his traditional burial on the island by the tribe elders.

Through the peace and calming vibe of the song, a listener can hear the band finding comfort, even in the face of immense sorrow, in the knowledge that their friend has passed into the afterlife. Through it’s subtlety and maturity, the sorrow felt by the group is palpable, especially as Bono works into his upper register towards the end of the track. But the heartbreak is healing, and the song serves as the remedy.

“The Joshua Tree” is both a reflection on the perils of the world at large and a love letter to the struggles and hard work that the band has had to go through and surmount to get to this point. Some songs are completely personal to the band, while others try to use the trials they’ve been through to empathize and raise awareness for the suffering of others in the world.

I think that sense of empathy, awareness and yearning for the truth is what makes the album so appealing to so many fans. It’s heartfelt and unassuming, but massive in its messages. Even if I may not always agree with the politics of the band members, I realize and acknowledge that their hearts are in the right place and they really do want to bring about awareness and understanding with their music.

Also, each song just sounds fantastic. The instrumentation, lyrics, vocal delivery and production meld together into some beautiful creations, and even though it’s not my personal favorite, I see why “The Joshua Tree” is regarded as the band’s most well-loved album in their catalogue. It’s an easy, beautiful and amazing listen without a single dud in the tracklist.

So there we have it; a closer look at U2’s first iconic rise to the top. Join in next time as we examine how our heroes venture further into the heart of American rock music with the rootsy “Rattle and Hum” soundtrack.

Thanks for reading, and God bless.


(Photo Credit: U2/Island Records/Anton Corbijn; retrieved from Wikimedia Commons).


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