It is vexingly difficult to improve upon the summation of “The Joshua Tree” offered by longtime U2 confidant Bill Flanagan in his liner notes accompanying this sumptuous re-release. U2’s fifth studio album, Flanagan writes, “established both a standard they would always have to live up to, and an image they would forever try to live down.”
The Joshua Tree was a milestone and a millstone. It turned U2 from a biggish rock’n’roll band into inescapable, ubiquitous, culture-straddling colossi. Even Time magazine felt obliged to put them on the cover, declaring U2 “Rock’s Hottest Ticket” and relegating Mikhail Gorbachev to a top-corner drop-in.
It also turned U2, as that kind of success often does to its victim, into caricatures of themselves. The perception of U2 as a sack of pompous bores, which rather unfairly persists despite several expansive and expensive attempts by the band to exorcise it – Bono famously characterised U2’s dazzling reinvention in the 1990s as “the sound of four men chopping down ‘The Joshua Tree’” – is rooted in the album’s cover image: Anton Corbijn’s grainy, black-and-white study of a quartet of earnest young Irishmen regarding the Californian desert with a demeanour that made the statues of Easter Island resemble, by comparison, the cast of “Animal House”.
So, 20 years and more than 20 million sales later, ‘The Joshua Tree’ is one of those albums which, like anything similarly culturally and commercially overwhelming, is a struggle to appreciate on its own merits. It’s a task made no easier by the – admittedly splendid – distractions included with this reissue. The deluxe edition includes a second disc of b-sides and demos. A limited box set has that plus a DVD which contains a concert from the “Joshua Tree” tour (Paris, July 4th, 1987), a couple of videos (including one for “Red Hill Mining Town” in which U2, clad in sweat-soaked singlets, stroll around what seems to be some sort of disreputable sauna) and a film called “Outside It’s America” – an agglomeration of home-movie footage, including the (almost literally) riotous filming of the “Where The Streets Have No Name” video on a Los Angeles rooftop, plus plane rides, photo shoots, soundchecks, shopping, and sundry after-hours clowning. The new sleeve features more of Corbijin’s photos, plus reflections on the album from most of its principals – each of U2, minus the obstinately modest Larry Mullen jr, Corbijn, producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, among others.
‘The Joshua Tree’ itself, it says here, has been “meticulously remastered”, but any casual listener who can perceive a meaningful difference between this and the original has i) ears like a bat and/or ii) needs to get out more. The emphasis on the re-mastering is, however, a telling indicator of U2’s essential restlessness: they are, whatever else one may think of them, the least complacent of megastars, gnawingly dissatisfied with their own canon (Bono’s contribution to the sleevenotes includes a hostage-offering admonishment to himself that he “never finished” the lyrics for “The Joshua Tree”). It’s also indicative of U2’s apparently insatiable desire to broadcast as far and wide as possible, this band who never – somewhat jarringly in the crucible of post-punk which formed them – saw the point, or the appeal, of obscurity (in the same treatise, Bono recalls rock of the late 80s as “starting to stare at its own shoes, with its gothic death cults and indie whingeing”).
Even the b-sides and out-takes on the new bonus disc fizz with ambition – and, inevitably, occasionally, over-ambition. Those who experience an itching sensation in their teeth whenever U2 embrace Calliope a little too ardently should probably skip the arrangements of William Blake’s “Introduction” (from “Songs Of Experience”) and Allen Ginsberg’s “America”. Elsewhere, though, lie many treasures, greatly illuminating of U2’s palette of influences – the space-age Smokey Robinson “Sweetest Thing”, the svelte Television homage “Spanish Eyes”.
‘The Joshua Tree’ itself still bristles with the bravado of a band shaping up for a shot at the title, daring themselves to believe that they could make their idols their peers. Shortly afterwards, of course, the further pursuit of this impulse would lead to the hubris, well-meaning though it was, of (i)Rattle & Hum(i), but for these 11 tracks, U2 hit neither a metaphorical nor actual duff note. The track-listing is massively front-loaded, led off by the three big singles (“Where The Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “With Or Without You”): the result, Bono later claimed, of asking Kirsty MacColl (whose then-husband, Steve Lillywhite, mixed four of the cuts) to sequence the record; she simply listed the songs in order of preference.
Starting with these ecstatic anthems sets the album up for a vertiginous downward momentum, plummeting through “Bullet The Blue Sky” (an oblique critique of American misadventurism in El Salvador, on which Edge’s screeching guitar satisfyingly approximates fighter jets) via the gorgeous “Running To Stand Still” to a succession of exquisitely reproachful, souped-up psalms contemplating, to various extents, what was, then and now, the biggest of subjects: the United States.
The working title for ‘The Joshua Tree’ was “The Two Americas”, which would have been blundering and portentous, but also accurate. The album was, and remains, an epic and unflinching gaze into a country of possibilities inspiring and alarming: a country into which U2 were looking, perhaps, and seeing something of themselves.