By Greg Kennelty, May 15, 2017
As someone born in 1990 whose familiarity with U2 relied on Apple commercials, South Park, and hearing the first three tracks off the band’s 1987 album The Joshua Tree in passing roughly one hundred-thousand times, I never firmly grasped just how huge this album was. Within a year of its release The Joshua Tree went 5x Platinum in the United States, having sold 5 million copies. In 1995, The Joshua Tree achieved Diamond status, having sold 10 million copies. Even now, the album’s popularity still clearly resonates with U2’s worldwide fan base, as The Joshua Tree 2017 Anniversary world tour sold 1.1 million tickets in 24 hours, with many of the dates selling out almost instantly.
Regardless of my general ignorance of The Joshua Tree as a full album, the world has embraced it tightly and refuses to let it go. This is the album that put The Edge’s masterful use of his pedal board, the rock-solid rhythmic foundation of Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen Jr., and the soaring vocals of Bono on the map, even beyond the first three smash hits of the album. If you don’t know Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, and With Or Without You, you’ve either been born within the past few years (hey, congrats on the early reading comprehension), or you practice a very hermit-like dedication to a genre where U2 has zero presence.
If there’s one thing that can be said about The Joshua Tree, it’s that the album is the culmination of four musicians really coming into their own. The quartet of Bono, The Edge, Clayton, and Mullen Jr. had been together for 11 years at this point and had put out four albums prior to The Joshua Tree. However, with The Joshua Tree, U2 turned a lyrical eye to the United States and a musical eye toward a cinematic vibe, resulting in an album so influential and significant to the world’s musical culture that it’s made its way into the US Library of Congress, as well as the National Recording Registry. Musically, the album is a departure from U2’s usual post-punk sound (and atmosphere of 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire), incorporating a much cleaner, more expansive sound that would ultimately become the band's signature. The songs on The Joshua Tree never run, so much as they walk at a brisk pace while admiring the scenery, all the while setting the stage for future megahits like One, Beautiful Day, Every Breaking Wave, and Vertigo.
The Joshua Tree was produced by famed soundscape artist Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who has gone on to write for and produce artists such as The Dave Matthews Band, The Killers, Sinéad O'Connor, Bob Dylan, and more.
- • Producers – Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Cheryl Engels
- • Engineers – Flood, Bob Doidge, Pat McCarthy, Patrick McCarthy, Dave Meegan
- • Studios – STS Studios, Danesmoate House, Melbeach, Windmill Lane Studios
- • Release Date – March 9, 1987
- • Chart Positions – #1 on Austrian Top 30 Albums, Canadian RPM 100 Albums, Dutch LP Top 75, French Albums Chart, German Top 100 Albums, New Zealand Top 40 Albums, Swedish Albums Top 60, UK Albums Chart, & US Billboard Top Pop Albums, #3 on Australian Albums Chart
I’ve heard the first three tracks from The Joshua Tree more times than I can tell you and in more places than I can tell you, and never once did they strike me as something I’d have to look up later and get into a little more. Where the Streets Have No Name, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, and With Or Without You are inherently well-written songs that are infectiously catchy, and will absolutely be stuck in your head until the day you die, but their ordering on The Joshua Tree doesn’t quite make sense to me. Where the Streets Have No Name slowly builds its energy with Clayton’s pounding bass line and fade-in of The Edge’s gloriously delayed guitar until things take off running, but the following two tracks immediately sap that energy. Bullet the Blue Sky takes you on a journey to nowhere, and Running To Stand Still seems like a fairly self-explanatory title.
Yes, Side A contains three major hits that have etched themselves into the walls of the world’s musical consciousness, but I’d venture to say that Side B is a much more interesting, more even-keeled effort that deserves the spotlight. Where Side A kicks things off bright, sunny, and running with Where the Streets Have No Name, Side B wakes up and makes breakfast with Red Hill Mining Town. The energy on Side B is a slower burn with songs like In God’s Country and One Tree Hill keeping up the pace, while Trip Through Your Wires and Exit provide the proverbial “ebb” to the latter duo’s “flow.” Much like Bullet the Blue Sky, the album’s closer, Mothers of the Disappeared ultimately goes nowhere, which is a bummer for Side B’s fantastic consistency and overall flow. The song itself has an almost Middle Eastern theme to it and builds layer upon layer of drone, though within the last thirty seconds, things simply cease to be, and the final keyboard arpeggio dies not in a reverb-soaked haze as a final lingering sound, but instead hastily fades out, providing the listener without much closure.
Sure, it turns out that I’m really not the biggest fan of The Joshua Tree musically, but the production on the album is fantastic. Each song is crafted specifically for the music it contains. Where the Streets Have No Name drapes The Edge’s guitar work over both the right and left channels while the rhythm section provides that bounding, running mood right down the center, yet Bullet the Blue Sky turns up the distorted bass and the drums pushing the clanky guitar lines right behind Bono’s reverb-drenched voice. To take things further, listen to Red Hill Mining Town and try not to envision sitting by the drooping windows of an old house from the late 1800s and looking out over endlessly rolling hills while the track plays in the background.
The Joshua Tree feels completely honest in its production – it really does sound like it’s a band making music for the first time in a bedroom studio – albeit with a much larger budget.
The Joshua Tree is rooted in U2’s fascination with America at the time and feels more like the score to a film rather than the follow-up to The Unforgettable Fire. It’s an album that precedes me as a person, became wildly popular before my time, and will likely continue to be loved for decades to come. Personally, I think The Joshua Tree is an interesting snapshot of the time and is very well-produced in terms of conveying mood, though the music just didn’t strike the same chord with me as it has with millions of others.