Monday, March 6, 2017

Where Poets Speak Their Heart Then Bleed For It: U2's Joshua Tree at 30

Outside is America
Bullet the Blue Sky

1987’s Joshua Tree presented us 11 songs that forever changed the landscape of rock music. With Bono at the helm of lyrics, they departed from the sound they had developed on their first three albums with Steve Lillywhite. Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois took them a step closer with Unforgettable Fire, honing their sound and encouraging them to experiment, tossing in risky subjects and wearing their hearts on their sleeves. 

The band began exploring America around this time, physically, artistically, musically, and politically. Here is this great open land, filled with dreams and hopes, yet their leaders support those in other countries who oppress. In fact, the working title for The Joshua Tree was The Two Americas because of the bifurcation that existed within America (McCormick, 2006 U2 by U2). The Joshua Tree brought us a new sound, more harsher and marbled with American sounds and inspired by American words. Bono also explored drug addiction, love, and loss. 

Lyrically, this album is a gift. Each song could be its own poem, rife with inspiration of Bono’s travels to Africa, his affliction for the unjust, his obsession with words, and the unsettling loss of a dear friend. And as always, Bono, our modern day psalmist, always manages a Biblical reference or two. It's their nature and no act. The band was still pretty close to their religious roots. Remember, we almost lost the band to God. Besides being complex lyrically, balancing the haves and the have-nots, stylistically The Joshua Tree is layered with hard and soft notes, yelling and whispering, and iconic guitar riffs that will forever summon the 1980's.

Let's take a look back at each song and maybe learn some things about The Joshua Tree that you never knew before. 

Where the Streets Have No Name
The Edge, according to Neil McCormick, "wanted to conjure up the ultimate U2 live-song, so he imagined what he would like to hear at a future U2 show if he were a fan." Inspired by a trip to Africa where anonymity is standard and a conversation about living in Belfast where the streets have names and it matters which one you live on, Bono looks at this world of ours where we build things up and then tear them down. It's opening notes are recognizable immediately and the band could not have identified a more perfect song to open this iconic album. And now how about that video?

I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For
More than just Bono stumbling through the streets of Vegas, it's Bono soul searching again with some glimmer that a gospel choir might just appear around the corner. Bono's relationship with God is not a shy one and this song proves it. 
You broke the bonds and you
Loosed the chains
Carried the cross
Of my shame
Of my shame
You know I believed it
But I still haven't found what I'm looking for

With or Without You
Is it about a woman, about God, or about ... the press? We may never know. But this song did stir many an emotion. Building like Stairway to Heaven, this song hits you around 3:05 with a wail that will make many swoon and get weak. 
*Trivia, if you turn it up high around 3:46, you can hear The Edge whisper make her cry.
P.S. You can credit Gavin Friday of Virgin Prune fame for believing in this song...and you should thank him for humanity.

Bullet the Blue Sky
You probably never knew how rife with politics this song was until now. Again, you're welcome. 
Bono was not shy of his sentiment against America backing bullies in Latin America.This song is heavy. Heavy like what search lights and helicopters would sound like right? Bono said put El Salvador through an amplifier. And U2 is the only band in the entire universe that can get away with 1) a political statement 2) a biblical analogy and 3) referencing John Coltrane. This is a pretty heavy and highly critical song. It's also pretty fucking fantastic live. 
This guy comes up to me
His face red like a rose on a thorn bush
Like all the colors of a royal flush
And he's peeling off those dollar bills
Slapping them down
One hundred, two hundred
And I can see those fighter planes
And I can see those fighter planes
Across the mud huts where the children sleep
Through the alleys of a quiet city street
You take the staircase to the first floor
Turn the key and slowly unlock the door
As a man breathes into a saxophone
And through the walls you hear the city groan
Outside is America
Outside is America

Running to Stand Still
A song influenced by a line Bono had never heard and the ongoing drug issue happened across from where he lived, Running to Stand Still was one of those experiments. Lyrically, who knew the story of drug addiction could be painted so beautifully yet so painfully. The song builds, yearning, building, crescendo, and then slows into a harmonica ending...and will probably cycle again.

Sweet the sin
Bitter taste in my mouth
I see seven towers
But I only see one way out

You got to cry without weeping
Talk without speaking
Scream without raising your voice

You know I took the poison
From the poison stream
Then I floated out of here
Singing...ha la la la de day
Ha la la la de day
Ha la la de day

She runs through the streets
With her eyes painted red
Under black belly of cloud in the rain
In through a doorway she brings me
White gold and pearls stolen from the sea
She is raging
She is raging
And the storm blows up in her eyes
She will...

Suffer the needle chill
She's running to stand...


Red Hill Mining Town
A song about labor and social strife in the UK, Bono didn't take to preach the politics of it, however he looked at it from the side of love. The video by wonderfully talented Neil Jordan, plops a nice yellow canary in a cage.

In God's Country
Being Bono, when he could not figure out of this was a sang about America or Ireland, he compromised with himself and said It's about the Statue of Liberty. 
Set me alight
We'll punch a hole right through the night
Everyday the dreamers die
See what's on the other side

She is liberty
And she comes to rescue me
Hope, faith, her vanity
The greatest gift is gold
Sleep comes like a drug
In God's Country

Trip Through Your Wires
A beautiful love song in the stylings of Dylan, Trip Through Your Wires is a beautiful example of Bono's love for his wife, Alison. 

One Tree Hill
A poignant tribute for Bono's friend and roadie for the band who was killed in 1986. The use of New Zealand's famed One Tree Hill is a perfect honor for Greg who was of Maori descent. The lyrics are a stunning eulogy and a promise of meeting again. This song conveys sadness and the passion of loss. And Bono, so cunningly enough, works into the song Victor Jara, who died because of the songs he sang.

And in the world a heart of darkness
A fire zone
Where poets speak their heart
Then bleed for it
Jara sang, his song a weapon
In the hands of love
You know his blood still cries
From the ground

It runs like a river runs to the sea
It runs like a river to the sea

The last two songs on the album are based in violence. For Exit, Bono basically binge read super violent books about serial killers and tried to get into their mind. This song goes so well with Gloria in Rattle and Hum.

Mother's of the Disappeared
And from one violent extreme to the next, Bono visits the topic of The Disappeared. Many Latin American countries had violent overthrows and with it came violent disappearances of those who fought against the change and oppression. 
In the wind we hear their laughter
In the rain we see their tears
Hear their heartbeat
We hear their heartbeat

The terms legacy and iconic seem to follow The Joshua Tree around. Thirty years on and the album is certified classic. It ushered in a brand new sound and it solidified the standing of U2 as a band that defies standard. They don't shun political or social issues, they will gladly throw a Bible reference in for fun, and if you challenge them, they will put music on your iPod while you sleep.  

...this is just the end of something for U2. And that's what we're playing these concerts -- and we're throwing a party for ourselves and you. It's no big deal, it's just -- we have to go away and...and dream it all up again.
               Bono - Lovetown Tour December 30, 1989

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