U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” is one of the greatest works in music history—one of only a handful of pop songs that reveals that a four-piece band can compose a sonic aura as sweeping and impressive as a symphony. I’ll spare you a garden-variety, dancing-to-architecture description of the delay-heavy guitars and absorbing percussion work; you’ve heard this song a million times and it’s well worth hearing a million more.
With an opener like that, there’s nowhere to go but down, and the rest of The Joshua Tree—even the super-hits “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With or Without You”—never comes close to reaching the grandeur of its opening salvo. The album lacks the dynamics and energy of U2’s punkier War and more experimental Achtung Baby, both of which are more engrossing listens, but it’s not surprising that the album is so adored. Take a look at the elaborate reissues that Island Records is releasing this week: four new versions—remastered, remastered and deluxe, remastered and deluxe with a DVD, and remastered on vinyl—of an album that 20-something million people already own that will probably still sell like hotcakes.
The Joshua Tree might not be as magnificent as the masses claim, but it’s not without its share of magnificence. This is largely thanks to the production work of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, who took Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” aesthetic and updated it for the Reagan era. The rhythm section is metronome-tight, grounding the wraithlike guitar work and the wild-card vocals. The delay effects on the Edge’s guitar create intentionally artificial-sounding echoes; like Kevin Shields, who recently said he doesn’t play guitar so much as use it to manufacture sound and then play that sound, these guys find beauty in the manufactured.
The wordless, wailing refrain of “With or Without You” still sends shivers down your spine, but Bono is lucky he’s such a nice guy and he’s even luckier that he makes such an enigmatic frontman because he’s one of the sloppiest, wackest lyricists in the game. Because the tunes are so indebted to that most cliché-ridden of genres (the blues), because his range is truly impressive, and because nobody can mic impassioned, British Isle hollering quite like Eno (just ask David Bowie), Bono gets away with a lot that a lesser man would not.
The tropes are inoffensive, since even Dylan rhymes “fire” and “desire,” and the clichés are forgivable, since rain and tears are pretty similar (though he does sing about rain an awful lot for an album that’s named after a desert). But Bono clearly never met a mixed metaphor he didn’t like: How exactly can “stinging rain” drive nails into “souls on a tree of pain,” even figuratively? Every now and then, though, the guy drops a gem: Has romantic anxiety ever been captured more accurately and succinctly than in the refrain, “I can’t live with or without you”?
As for his politics, Bono is often accused of being sanctimonious, but on The Joshua Tree he actually sounds detached. There’s the blossoming of his liberal outrage in “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared,” which were inspired by a trip to South America but which are so mired in hammy imagery and Jim Morrison-posturing—“So how does it feel to see the sky ripped open?/To see the rain through a gaping wound/Pelting the women and children/Who run into the arms of America?”—that he completely misses the polemical power of addressing actual pain in actual countries with actual people. It’s not a criticism you can level at, say, “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
Still, there’s something charming, even refreshing, about the way Bono’s lyrics try so hard. It’s difficult to remember, but there was a time when Europeans didn’t hate America (de Toqueville! The Statue of Liberty!), and aside from the sorta-enraged “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared,” Bono sounds legitimately in awe of our nation’s people and topography; depending on where you look, it sure can feel like “God’s country.” Beautiful sights will bring out the cornball in most anyone, and Bono’s earnestness is perfectly supported by Eno’s extraordinary production work. Rarely has a work of art been so majestic and yet sound so silly.
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