It was late at night and I was heading west on a highway in the middle of America the first time I heard “The Joshua Tree.” A radio station was playing the brand-new album from start to finish, and I was listening intently. U2, with their angular guitars and anthemic righteousness, had been my favorite band for a while by then, but this sounded different, more mature and complex. Toward the end, as I drove into the darkness, the signal began to fade along with the music, dissipating just as the album does, from the majestic swell of the first three songs to the impressionistic twilight of the final few.
The gravity of the work was unmistakable. U2 was about to have their moment.
“The Joshua Tree” was U2’s American album, and they weren’t subtle about it. U2 had rarely been subtle about anything. From the California desert tree that gave the album its name, to the lyrics to “Bullet the Blue Sky” (“outside is America”), to the onslaught of interviews they did after the release, the band made clear its infatuation with this country’s vast horizons. Always a band willing to shoot straight past metaphor, they literally shouted it from the rooftops.
Though their ambition had been consistent from the start, the stance was new. On some level, of course, it was an act of artifice, just as “Sgt. Pepper’s” or “Ziggy Stardust” had been in the decades before. This was the dusty American version of U2, just as there would later be a sleek Berlin version of the band (on “Achtung Baby”) and a techno-glam version (“Pop”). Still, the commitment to the concept was striking, especially for a collective that had previously traded so explicitly on its Irish identity.
From the start, U2’s music, videos and album packaging had evoked its roots. The band’s sound conjured images of narrow stone streets, gloomy skies and a North Atlantic chill. They sounded like they’d never seen sunshine or wide-open spaces.
That changed from the very beginning of “The Joshua Tree.” The wordless intro to “Where the Streets Have No Name” lasts for more than a minute, coming on slowly like a sunrise over a vast plain. It unfolds like so much of the album does — patiently, methodically and always building toward a crescendo.
The irony is that U2’s new carefully cultivated image was designed to feel like authenticity. Their rise came as a mild corrective to the wave of (mostly great) music that began to take over in 1983 and 1984, when Michael Jackson, Madonna and even David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen went full-blown showbiz and made glitzy appeals for superstardom. U2 had the same ambitions, but where others opted for the garish colors of the MTV age, U2 crafted a mythology in sepia tones and black and white. When, during the 1987 tour, Bono sang “all I’ve got is a red guitar, three chords and the truth,” it felt like he was selling the idea just a little too hard. But when you front a band that could reach the back of the arena better than anyone since Led Zeppelin, no one is ever going to mind.
U2 toured the world in support of “The Joshua Tree,” and they played Kansas City’s Kemper Arena on Oct. 26, 1987. On Tuesday, Sept. 12, they return to Arrowhead Stadium as part of a tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album. Upon its release, “The Joshua Tree” stood as U2’s most mature and fully realized album, and a departure from much of their previous work. But the songs weren’t without precedent in the band’s catalog. There were clues to U2’s destination all along the way.
“An Cat Dubh” / ”Into the Heart”
U2’s earliest work reflects not just urgency, but impatience. That shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, the four members were all still in their teens when the music was birthed, and their aesthetic had grown directly from punk rock, which practically demanded that bands make their point forcefully in three minutes or less. That approach served U2 well on “Boy” (their 1980 debut album), especially on a song like “I Will Follow,” with its stinging guitar figure and shout-along chorus. But the band had already begun to master other tones, like on this two-song suite that unspools slowly in a haze of gauzy atmospherics while still retaining its surprisingly melodic shape. The band was in no hurry here, and that sort of restraint would pay off in a huge way on “The Joshua Tree” on songs like “With or Without You” and “One Tree Hill.”
The title track to U2’s second album saw the band expand its palette, exchanging The Edge’s chiming guitar for a simple piano melody that gives the song its mournful and lovely sound. The ability to shift from high-intensity rock to something stately and quiet allowed the band to vary the pacing and dynamics of its recordings. The different kinds of songs sounded better when they played off of each other. Echoes of “October” are heard on “The Joshua Tree” in “Running to Stand Still,” which provides a moment of relief after the searing intensity of “Bullet the Blue Sky.”
“New Year’s Day”
1983’s “War” was U2’s first undeniably great album, the culmination of the band’s original, rebel-rocking phase. The songs are strong beginning to end, and Steve Lillywhite’s clear, unfussy production provides a timeless sound, in contrast to so many of the albums of that time, which seem hopelessly dated today. Nowhere did the elements come together more perfectly and concisely than on this track, which incorporates most of the facets of the band’s sound into a unified whole, with a memorable musical motif and chorus that buzzed around listeners’ heads. This sort of tight construction would show up repeatedly on “The Joshua Tree,” including on “In God’s Country.”
U2’s fourth full-length effort, 1985’s “The Unforgettable Fire,” is among the most vivid examples of a transitional album in the history of rock and roll. The first to be produced by arty musical provocateur Brian Eno, it served as a stark departure from the band’s previous work, even if it didn’t fully reach a new destination. It’s a beautiful mess of a record, featuring the luminous title track, one of the band’s classic singles and a handful of songs that are deliberately weird and impenetrable. But something crystallizes on “Bad,” where The Edge’s signature guitar sound is repurposed in a slow, hypnotic march with a martial pulse provided by drummer Larry Mullen, Jr. The centerpiece of the band’s breakout performance at Live Aid, it is carried home by Bono’s undeniable charisma. Perhaps more than any other song, it announced the coming of “The Joshua Tree,” especially its direct descendant, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
—Michael Atchison writes about music for The Bridge. He is the author of three books, including the novel “Mellow Submarine,” which Publishers Weekly calls “a fast-paced delight.” He’s on Twitter at @MichaelAtchison.