There was a time, five or six years ago, when I believed U2 would stand with the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, the Who, Led Zepplin as one of those members of the Rock Canon, whose every work was transcending and timeless. I don’t feel that way anymore. They are a very good band, whose time has largely passed, that made some very good songs.
This isn’t intended to be a diss. I think Bono is a great frontman and vocalist, and I have a deep personal admiration for his good works. I find The Edge to be a fine guitarist and stylist. Bassist Adam Clayton and drummer, Larry Mullen, Jr. are an excellent rhythm section. U2 made some very good records, showcasing some excellent work. It is impossible to overlook Gloria, Pride (In the Name of Love), One, or more recently, Vertigo. However, many of U2’s albums are uneven, despite their superb elements.
Then there is The Joshua Tree. It’s hard to imagine this album is more than 25 years old, which may say more about my status as a senior citizen than the age of the album. I recently bought a vinyl copy of the classic and marveled at the warmth of the analog sound, which confirmed my view it was truly one of my favorites.
To be one of my favorites an album must have an abundance of great songs and a dearth of wasted tracks. The Joshua Tree succeeds spectacularly in that regard. Not only is the playlist full of great music, but the songs are meaningful. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For and With Or Without You are deeply spiritual. Others take on critical social issues. Running to Stand Still is a beautiful lament about the challenges of drug addiction. Others challenge America’s claim to moral superiority, such as Bullet the Blue Sky, an observation of our ubiquitous gun violence.
Two songs on this album really move me. In God’s Country is one of those challenges to America’s pre-eminence and has meaning today as we debate immigration reform. This album was released in 1987, a year after the last immigration reform bill. Warning against the lure of the American Dream, Bono cautions that the promises of Emma Lazarus are replaced by spiritual emptiness and a simple quest for wealth :
She comes to rescue me
Her hope, faith and vanity
The greatest gift is gold.”
Driven by the Edge’s staccato style of manic strumming, the uptempo rocker puts a punctuation point on a foreigner’s jaundiced view of Ronald Reagan’s America. One not so different from today.
If In God’s Country is an indictment, Mother’s of the Disappeared is an elegy. Inspired by the daily, silent demonstrations by mothers of young people murdered by the brutal Argentine dictatorship of the 1980’s, Mothers is raw and emotional. building softly and soaring on Bono’s vocals to a plaintive wail. Though an attack on the perpetrators of this crime against humanity would be understandable, the song is instead about the mothers and their longing for their children:
In the wind we hear their laughter
in the rain we see their tears
hear their heart beat
we hear their heart beat
It is a compelling plea for an end to the abduction, torture and murder conducted quietly, out of sight from the mass of Argentinians that sustained the last days of that junta. This is my favorite song from this album.
This is a great album, with thoughtful songs about important, deeply spiritual topics. The Joshua Tree showcases a mature band with a confident, musical style at the zenith of their career. It’s inclusion in my list of favorite albums is a no-brainer.