It’s a puzzle, liking U2. They make it so easy, and yet they make it so hard. From their post-punk 80’s through their post-modern 90’s to their post-post-modern 00’s and beyond, they’ve bombarded an impressionable world with suitably impressionistic music, music whose core concern often seemed to be the straight-faced evocation of a spiritual essence that perhaps only theists such as they would presume to try and universalise for the popular music market. Like a sermon that speaks with lyrical certainty of the unknowably abstract, such boldness can both entice and irritate, leaving you alternately jostled into mild fervour and wondering why they don’t know better. The tension between these two reactions can leave one frustrated, and even a little guilty; so, like the atheist who still digs the Bible as a monumental proto-novel in two parts, it’s useful to make certain tactical decisions before listening to U2: I’ll humour them some, maybe forgive myself a little emotional voyeurism every now and then, etcetera. Such concessions can resolve the tension, and are often worth it.
But not always, of course. Sometimes you’ll hear your patience rewarded, others, betrayed. Across much of U2’s work – and not just on their younger albums – there’s fun to be had and kicks to be got, but sometimes not quite enough to balance the ardour it’s all shot through with. However, after the first half of their twenties had carried them from enjoyable parochial punk of 1980’s Boy through to the invigorating ambient lather of 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, U2 rallied round the conceptual bigness of America to produce an album that made good on their grandiose sensibility like never before. While continuing their working relationship with sound-savvy producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, they set about writing many of the best songs of their career, songs that gave a higher purpose to the style that seemed to have become U2’s purpose itself. The multi-multi-million selling result was titled The Joshua Tree – a thematically suggestive nod to that Mojave Desert stalwart – and was released 30 years ago today.
I must begin by asserting that the first three songs on this album are essentially perfect, at least in the sense that U2 seem to have understood perfection: as a tremulously holy thing. These three songs – in order, ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’, and ‘With Or Without You’ – see U2 skimming the apex of their artistic trajectory all in one fifteen minute flourish, condensing in them all the righteousness that Bono’s inflamed vocals, the Edge’s ricocheting guitar, and the proletarian Mullen-Clayton rhythm section have to offer. The first two songs march on the world as seen from U2’s emotions-are-truth outlook, spinning the simplistic vagueness promised by their titles into songs that actually feel as macroscopic as you might assume they never really could, songs in which almost-bland generality is musically transformed into almost-mythical ambiguity. And on ‘With Or Without You’, the finest thing they’ve ever created, this eschewing of smallness and specificity reaches its apotheosis, as U2 paint with the biggest strokes their biggest sonic mural of popular music’s biggest topic – Love – and make it sound as venerable as an encyclopaedic entry on the matter.
Having set the tone thus, U2 then generally scale it down, delivering eight more songs that are happy enough turning U2’s Big-Picture approach towards less abstracted sentiments and subject matter. The next best few are ‘Bullet The Blue Sky’, a sun-crazed, guitar-glazed rumbler that evokes the jet-testing first hour of Philip Kaufman’s The Right Stuff, ‘Running To Stand Still’, a childishly sweet heroin/love ballad that swells only to deflate, as it must, and ‘Exit’, a stormy portrait of a psycho-killer that co-opts the murderous madness of Nick Cave without yielding too much of that madness’s terror. The rest of The Joshua Tree’s songs play around in the wide open musical space that U2 here ventured into, testing out what they can bring into it, lamenting Nicaraguan civil strife (‘Mothers Of The Disappeared’) or saluting their late roadie Greg Carroll (‘One Tree Hill’) here, riffing on America (‘Red Hill Mining Town’, ‘In God’s Country’, ‘Trip Through Your Wires’) there.
The star here is, as ever with U2, Bono, for the Edge’s brilliance is nevertheless atmospheric brilliance, and Clayton and Mullen’s bass and drums were always only ever foundational, even if essentially so. And, while critic Robert Christgau was rather humorously onto something when he diagnosed in Bono’s Joshua Tree vocals “one of the worst cases of significance ever to afflict a deserving candidate for superstardom”, I believe Bono here earns his primacy, as well as the superstardom that indeed did follow. Over The Joshua Tree’s eleven tracks, he executes some of the most captivating vocal performances in rock music’s history, twisting into all kinds of registers and melding theatricality with desperate earnestness to provide an emotional centre around which the other musical forces can swirl. Indeed, he makes his generally interesting and often touching lyrics seem far more vital than a shyer – or perhaps more tasteful – singer could, or would.
That said, it’s Bono who can be held accountable for most of the world’s ambivalence (and worse) towards U2, and Christgau’s point about significance probes to the root of Bono’s – and by extension U2’s – problem more generally: that such extant passion as theirs invariably sounds like that of a conclusion reached too soon and without all the facts. Certainly, it’s the case that art, of all things, allows us the scope to be so presumptuous, so brashly fatuous, so knowingly unguarded, and to signify regardless. But it always seems as though U2 aren’t quite playing the knowing game; rather, they really believe in big answers, and they can’t wait to tell you theirs. Their sense of significance is too often just a little too brazen to countenance, and the overbearance and dull hypocrisy that pervades Bono’s philanthropism doesn’t help things either. But if U2’s conceit, which elsewhere you must decide to ignore, is justified anywhere in their oeuvre, it is on The Joshua Tree, where their grasp at last matched their reach, and, on those first three phenomenal songs, exceeded it a little too.
Photo credit: flickr