Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Joshua Tree

By Nick

Bands and artists who become famous tend to go through three stages. First, they burst onto the scene with a fresh new sound. People hearing them for the first time are amazed. Fans try to convince all their friends to drop all their other bands and listen to this new one. Second, the band's new sound catches on with the mainstream public and they become famous, get a good record deal, have big-name tours, platinum albums, number one hits, etc. Thirdly, they become so ubiquitous that they usually reach such a level of pompousness that they implode. They start to water their music down with vapid pop influences, or their producers take over their studio time and downgrade their music. Their record label begins to demand that they record covers of 1980s dance music classics. Indie-ish music fans who have the same feeling about famous musicians that kids have about broccoli start denying that they were ever fans: "What? (Insert Alternative Rock Band Name Here)? They're just sell-outs." And finally, critics who promoted their music before they were big become jaded and dismiss their music without thinking.
U2s breakthrough album was the Joshua Tree, which catapulted them to household names. While it's tempting to write a review dismissing U2 as self-important snobs who write really slow songs that don't sound like AC/DC, I don't write for Rolling Stone, so I won't write that kind of review. Instead, I will try to scrub my mind clean of any negative connotations and review this album like it was fresh.
U2 is a band that is defined by it's style, an haunting ethereal sound canvas mainly painted by Bono's soaring vocals and The Edge's inventive guitar sonics. The album starts out with "Where The Streets Have No Name", beginning with an almost church music feel provided by an organ before breaking out into the fast rhythm guitar that has characterised U2. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "With or Without You" are very good, solid songs, although their greatness has been somewhat tarnished by overexposure through radio and other means. Still, even if a song has been played 1,000 times, it's still a good song.
Musically and Lyrically, the album is all about redemption, whether through God or through a Woman (or both). The album covers a large range of emotions that are set in perfect counterpoint. The tense and bleak "Bullet The Blue Sky", (I dare you to listen to this song in a pitch black room at night with your closet door open.) is set off by the incredibly relaxed "Running to Stand Still", which musically is close to something that someone's grandmother might have sung at church. "Red Hill Mining Town", the albums anthem of hope, is juxtaposed with the ambiguous "In God's Country". And so on.
It is easy to pick out the flaws in this record. Bono's voice and The Edge's guitar licks are either great or awful, depending on your mood. "Trip Through Your Wires" is U2s attempt to write a blues song, which seems to happen every album. U2s style works for soaring anthems and emotional ballads; with a few exceptions, it does not work for blues jams. "Trip Through Your Wires" sounds half like an attempt to turn U2 into a classic rock band and half like a drunken bar song. "One Tree Hill", despite having good lyrics, is a bit too bouncy and happy for a song written about a guy's funeral. And "Exit" was mixed so quietly that you either have to crank your stereo up to 11 or put your ear on the speaker to actually hear anything. Not sure if this was just a mistake that never got corrected or if it's on purpose.
However, I shouldn't go so far in criticizing a truly epic album. Bono's lyrics give what could have been a pretensious project into an amazing exploration of the themes of grace and redemption. Bono's lyrics aren't cutesy "positive and encouraging" waffle,(Think Mainstream Christian Pop), or endlessly despairing(Think Nirvana). Instead, the band shows life as it really is, with all of it's horrible, ugly warts, but also heartbreaking beauty. Or, as the Foo Fighters said so well, "Echoes and Silence, Patience and Grace."


  1. Nick: I pretty much stopped following rock bands beyond the middle 70s. For the most part, those that came out post 75 or so had to be in the public eye to the extreme... for me to even be aware of their existence. U2 was pretty much the only exception. I actually bought the Joshua Tree album - the only 80s album I ever bought- largely based on it's promotion as a Christian album of sorts. And honestly, I liked it. Subsequent exposure to the band has not impressed me much. In regards to the last sentence in your post, I confess to wondering: how do sentient adults in a band come to consensus or joint epiphany about the name "Foo Fighters?" I guess they realized that "Paul Revere and the Raiders" was already taken. Hey, if you have any thoughts about 60s/70s music, visit my new music blog,(you guys inspired me) and send me some suggestions, etc. Regards.

  2. It's pretty much a flawless rock record from top to bottom only to be outdone by Achtung Baby.

    Another Black Season

  3. Mr. Leach: I don't think that the members of the Foo Fighters could be described as sentient adults.