A Millennial Listens to U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’ for the First Time
When U2's The Joshua Tree hit on March 9, 1987, I was 11 years old. On the strength of all of the singles on pop radio, I pushed and pushed and pushed my dad to get the record. After hearing the singles for himself, he decided that not only was he going to buy me a copy — it was going to be our first foray into the world of digital music. The Joshua Tree was my first CD. I distinctly remember the foldout panel, being mad that it wasn’t as big as an LP, but loving the fact that I could skip to songs with such ease. I played the shit out of that record, and it remains ingrained in my psyche to this day. Before the iTunes fiasco, and before Bono’s stupid colored sunglasses showed up at every single party in the known universe, there was The Joshua Tree. No wonder they're celebrating its anniversary. What a landmark record and moment for me as a budding music fan.
Millennials grew up with a different kind of U2, though — not the hyper-political one performing “Sunday Bloody Sunday” at Red Rocks, but the bug-eyed Bono that helped write “The Fly.” By then, U2 were creating play-nice-with-corporate anthems like “Beautiful Day,” “Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me” (from the Batman Forever soundtrack) and “Vertigo.” The kind of songs that fit nicely before the commercial break on Sunday football on FOX.
Before the bloat, before the beanie replaced the cowboy hat and before they went Pop, it would be hard to argue against The Joshua Tree. Sure, the years have not been especially kind to U2, and The Joshua Tree has been licensed to death for television and commercials, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that this LP was once a classic.
Our resident millennial John Hill grew up in the bloated era, and never knew the band that shook the world with The Joshua Tree. As such, we've decided to guide him through the LP ever so gently.
"WHERE THE STREETS HAVE NO NAME"
Fred Pessaro: This is how you open a record. There was a time when this song was incredibly impactful for me. The epic scope of the Edge’s reverb-heavy guitar work, tripping over itself and sounding ready for the stadium, just sounded like the start of a movement. Before I knew what ambient was — or had really listened to that much music outside of a typical pop structure — that intro and outro just sort of got me. Let’s be real: With the amount of times this song has been licensed out for shampoo commercials or whatever, the impact has been lost. That said, there is a reason why it was used so much: It’s a classic.
John Hill: This is a pretty huge track. It’s kind of hard for me to picture it as a single, just based on how sprawling everything feels. That beginning intro, if it was looped like a William Basinski kind of thing, I wouldn’t have any problem listening to for about an hour straight. It’s also a little strange for me to hear a song that feels so genuine. It’s a rock song that feels so pure and devoid of any kind of cynicism. Bono sounds like he’s having a lot of fun, too, which is also something I don’t necessarily think about on a first listen of a track. Top-to-bottom exuberance, guitars that constantly expand outwards — as someone who hasn’t actively sought out this record, I’m having a weird experience where I can sort of hear echoes of this song throughout different things I can’t fully identify, so there’s a kind of phantom nostalgia to be experienced. Most of that is probably due to the song itself — these sweeping, beautiful arrangements. It’s a stunner.
"I STILL HAVEN'T FOUND WHAT I'M LOOKING FOR"
FP: One way that a great song can also be measured is in the versatility of the melody. I’d venture to say that, out of all of U2’s catalog, this is their most versatile track. The melody is impenetrable, and I’ve heard everyone on the planet cover this song, in several different styles, all successfully. It’s a beautiful song about the quest for love, and as a budding 11-year-old, it was just abstract enough that I knew where they were coming from and what they meant. Another classic of the era that has been abused to death by everyone from AOR to mainstream film.
JH: As the title of this feature says, I’m a millennial. The weirdest part about listening to this record is that I can hear so many bands I grew up with aping the sounds of this record (this song in particular) as part of their “serious” or mature sound. I’d love to know how many times the guys in 30 Seconds to Mars or Linkin Park spun this album to draw from for their own stuff. As a song on its own, it seems like a nice downshift from the previous track; the melodies and the rhythm sort of take over. Makes me wonder if they have punk roots somewhere, if they ever wandered into shoegaze.
"WITH OR WITHOUT YOU"
FP: I find it fascinating and inspiring that a band, five albums deep into their career, still could deliver something with the emotional weight and scope of “With or Without You.” Compare and contrast to virtually any other band today — by the time album number three hits, most bands are dried up and checked out. The emotion on the bridge alone, with the swelling chorus, is enough to keep you there forever. This could be one of the greatest pop songs ever written.
JH: Oh man, even more than before, I think every corny rock band of the 2000s needs to send Bono some royalty checks. This has to be The Single, just the super-anthemic track everyone probably sprang to. I can’t really say it isn’t deserving of it either — these choruses are great, and the long notes in Bono’s voice are really sweet. It might be a little too saccharine, but it’s a banger.
"BULLET THE BLUE SKY"
FP: This is the track that mirrors older U2 the best: harder-edged, punk-inflected, with a defiant tone to the vocals and overall approach. A great song, but to me, a lowlight on an otherwise shining epic.
JH: Really dig the bass in this. That guitar line in the first bit is totally aces, too. Makes me want to see how Adam Clayton and the Edge work off each other. The chemistry of the band is really sticking out to me — like everyone is on the same page in giving this a real sense of mood and just a hint of sexiness. Bono is kind of growly, the Edge is just fucking with his guitar pedals, the drums are totally grooving. It’s genuinely kind of cool? Which isn’t something I’d expect out of the record, but there is an underlying coolness to all of it.
"RUNNING TO STAND STILL"
FP: This is the U2 that I want to remember forever. Songs like this and The Unforgettable Fire’s “Bad” are just so heavy in their slow burn, swelling and heaving with emotional crescendos and simple falsetto “woo-hoo” parts. I’m glad that this stayed an album track — it’s avoided all of the oversaturation that most of the recod received. Kind of feels like "the one" for me.
JH: Going into this record, I guess there were some archetypes I was expecting — namely the quiet, pensive and vulnerable track that centers on Bono’s singing — and this seems to be the initial incarnation of that. Despite that, I think it does some interesting things and doesn’t follow an expected route. The harmonica doesn’t sound too bad either.
"RED HILL MINING TOWN"
FP: If there is one thing that Bono is great at — besides photo ops in Africa and perfecting a look with purple-lensed glasses — it’s emoting and showing a versatility in his vocals. This is a perfect example of that. When Bono’s voice cracks during chorus of, “I’m hanging on / You’re all that’s left to hold on to / I’m still waiting,” it feels like he means every word. Couple that with more of the Edge’s reverb-heavy guitar and it feels like an anthem.
JH: A good pick-me-up from the last song, which wasn’t necessarily sad, but this puts the album back into full rock-guy triumph mode. The Edge’s guitar stuff is really impressive; I appreciate that he’s clearly really proficient at his shit, but doesn’t show off in expected ways, instead incorporating a lot of different schools of music (like surf rock in sections — that kind of thing). I’m sure I’d eat my words listening to their other tunes, but it’s pretty cool so far.
"IN GOD'S COUNTRY"
FP: This is a song that would only exist on The Joshua Tree. Again, the Edge’s reverb leads the way here, with Bono’s almost-stutter and emotional delivery punctuating the entire thing. Not my favorite on the record, but a well-executed low point on this LP is a high point anywhere else.
JH: Haven’t really talked about lyrics, but I think this is sort of the ideal of what you’d want from Bono. You get a taste of politics, just hints here and there, that it’s about world affairs, how Americans compare to Ireland and all the countries Bono has traveled to or whatever. That guitar sound is totally killer, too. A solid album cut.
"TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES"
FP: Always a bit hard to listen to this one, especially knowing that the track was a great indicator of where the band would go with the bloated Rattle & Hum. Strong, strong blues influence here, but far from a terrible track by any means. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say.
JH: That harmonica, baby! I wonder what the record would sound like as an uninterrupted single track kind of thing, if that would even be possible. Each song is a logical continuation of the last, this one riffing off the desert skies and all that.
"ONE TREE HILL"
FP: Much like “Running to Stand Still,” here’s an upbeat classic that never really went further than being a deep cut. Bono’s approach is smoother and less bombastic, and the track is a sleeper candidate for one of the best on the LP.
JH: Oh man, that show totally named themselves after this track, huh? I mean, I guess if I were a burgeoning CW show about family dynamics, U2 would be my North Star. Anyway, there’s a lot of interesting build-ups and lead-ins throughout — the chorus and string sections come in to build off of the bass and guitars, creating this totally affirming track. Bono’s really going for it at the end there over the solo, which, to my relief, wasn’t obnoxious. The reprise is great, too.
"EXIT" / "MOTHERS OF THE DISAPPEARED"
FP: To me, “Exit” always lost some of the kinetic energy and goodwill that the rest of the LP had established so well. There is an emotional weight to “Mothers of the Disappeared,” though, even having the onus of being pitted against the beginning of the LP, so front-loaded with some of the greatest rock songs of all time. I mean, face it: You’re gonna hit repeat anyway.
JH: There’s a lot of parts to "Exit" I wish I liked more, but it seems like a bit of a retread of “Bullet the Blue Sky.” That bass, though. "Mothers of the Disappeared" is a really good capstone for the record, all things considered. It reiterates some of the earlier parts from the album without overdoing it, sending things off in a really hopeful and positive way. Does the ending part loop back into the beginning? Maybe there’s an ouroboros effect. The echoes of electronic elements are probably a harbinger for what would later come, but overall a solid end.
So, coming out on the other side, how did John Hill feel about the record? He documented his thoughts on the entire thing below:
When I think of U2, I think of being 12, watching a VH1 “Best Music Videos of the Week” countdown with my mom in our living room, and seeing their new video for “Vertigo.” I remember my mom kind of sighing, and me being confused at her disappointment. “They had some really amazing music at one time,” she told me, “but I guess this is fine, too.” After that, my exposure to the band was them having a black and red iPod colorway, thinking that if they used those colors, they had to be cool. But when I saw the unopened copy of How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb she got from her sister on Christmas, I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be too good. I listened to it on my Discman, and I couldn’t make it halfway through before I got really bored and listened to Marilyn Manson.
Since then, I’ve always heard that U2 had good music, but everything I’d experienced had been pretty empty or obnoxious, nothing that ever interested me. Getting past all the skepticism, though, I was genuinely excited to listen to The Joshua Tree, one of those albums that’s been cited on every best-of-all-time list.
Although my expectations were low, I genuinely really loved this record. To expand on something I brought up about the first track, I think what I appreciated the most was the general sense of exuberance, the kind of unrestricted, big-picture rock music that bands might be too afraid to go after today. Before Bono’s humanitarianism became kind of a caricature, I really did feel like there was a sense of unifying care for the human condition, in an existential sense. Listening to it almost makes me kind of sad; the bloated, overdone music the band would later make feels kind of empty, whereas I think there’s a lot of hope and wonder to be found here. Beyond that, can a band write music that’s this genuine anymore without being labeled corny? The waves of modern rock bands that have tried to emulate some of the sounds they came up with certainly did. Their dogshit, trickle-down descendants in bands like Imagine Dragons and Young the Giant come off so completely cynical in sounding positive for the sake of getting in car commercials.
Otherwise, it’s a great record, one I want to dig right back into. I feel resonance today — sometimes the best answer to unhappiness is a steadfast, unwavering hope, with no room for cynicism.