After a three-year layoff expectations for this album were enormous, but “The Joshua Tree” met, and perhaps even exceeded, all expectations. The album has a broad, cinematic sweep and is a subdued, subtly beautiful album by a band that had reached full artistic maturity.
The album begins with the three successful singles that helped make U2 the biggest band in the world. “Where The Streets Have No Name” starts with a mellow keyboard melody reminiscent of “MLK,” but the song soon surges into one of their most exciting rockers, with prime performances all around. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” continues with a highly spiritual, gospel-tinged pop ballad that contains an attractive melody and reflective lyrics that are both personal and universal (and therein lies part of this album’s appeal). Likewise, “With Or Without You” contains lyrics that we can all relate to (i.e. “can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em”), accompanied by a beautiful melody and a wonderfully restrained performance from Bono, who puts in his most varied and accomplished vocal performance to date.
“Bullet The Blue Sky” is another well-known song, this one about American intervention in Central America, as politics inevitably re-enter the picture. Fortunately, this is a powerful, hard rocking political statement on which the Edge seemingly channels the ghost of Hendrix, transporting the uneasy listener directly to that war-torn land. Another familiar U2 theme reappears on “Running To Stand Still,” an anti-drug (specifically anti-heroin) song that is all the more effective for its sparse acoustic arrangement and Bono’s reserved, respectful vocal. As on The Unforgettable Fire, some of my favorite songs here are actually lesser known album tracks, one of which is the (again) politically charged, socially conscious “Red Hill Mining Town,” which is especially notable for its soaring, dramatic ending. Continuing, “In Gods Country” returns U2 to familiar territory with an old style rocker that sounds relaxed and confident, while “Trip Through Your Wires” delivers a lighter, harmonica-led sing along.
Another personal favorite then commences with “One Tree Hill,” a touching tribute to a former friend (the line “I’ll see you again when the stars fall from the sky” gets me every time) that, appropriately enough, has a spiritual, hymn-like quality that is ultimately life affirming. Finally, the album winds down with “Exit,” an intense, tightly wound rocker on which U2’s darker side is revealed, and “Mothers Of The Disappeared,” which takes up another noble cause and provides an atmospheric, low-key ending to the album. Actually, the song is the album’s least memorable, but that’s partially because of the company it keeps, as this is one of those rare albums where almost every single song is special. In short, the word “timeless” was coined to describe albums such as this, as The Joshua Tree expertly combines passionate, intelligent lyrics (with a nice mix of “important” political statements, some of which aimed pointed daggers at America, along with a more personal approach) with adventurous arrangements (again partially credit Eno and Lanois, who have produced all of the band’s very best albums) and confident performances.
The album cleaned up at all the major awards ceremonies, too, marking a rare case when commerce and artistic merit were in mutual agreement.