Playing God
U2: The Joshua Tree

it’s the album they’ll spend the rest of their lives trying to live up to—or to live down, depending on how you look at it. As a document of a band expanding in several directions at once, The Joshua Tree sealed U2’s place in rock history—and cemented their reputation as humorless scolds. Despite passionate performances and a strong set of tunes, a clear-eared reassessment finds a lot of problems with this record. The at-the-time-much-vaunted “rootsy” trappings now come off as callow and contrived (though never reaching the cringe-worthy depths of follow-up Rattle and Hum—Okay, Edge, play the blues!); the politics are desperately worthy; despite the passion of the performances, the whole enterprise is weirdly sexless.

Most pertinently, the pacing is wonky. The band front-loads the radio hits, founders towards the middle, and ends on a downer. Points for exploring dark, thorny subject matter, but demerits for running out of gas along the way. The Joshua Tree, like all of U2’s first few records, is like a time-lapse film—as it goes on, the hooks dissolve before your very ears. Larry Mullen may say it’s a musical journey, but The Joshua Tree ultimately goes nowhere.

That’s a crucial failing for a band with spiritual aspirations. I believe in God, myself; but I wake up every morning with my faith in the benevolence of the universe beaten out of me, an atheist until my second cup of coffee. And every day I struggle back up to belief. That arc is implied, buried in the songs of The Joshua Tree and its b-sides.

This exercise brings that sine-wave narrative arc to the fore, using as material the songs that came out of the album sessions (with one exception, and omitting altogether material that later ended up on Rattle and Hum). Not a definitive Joshua Tree, but one possibility: less political, more erotic; less messianic, more human. A redemption narrative, if you like—starting from the giddy heights, slip-sliding down to rock bottom, and fighting our way back up; you know, just like life.

First move: chop “With Or Without You” from the album proper, and issue it as a non-album single. It’s of a piece with the album, but not a part of it: darker, spookier, more carnal than anything U2 had yet released—and a taste of the record to come.

01 Where The Streets Have No Name (5:37)
Still the best way to open the disc—not just a classic track, it’s a classic opening track, with its long simmer on the intro, and all themes intact.

02 In God’s Country (2:57)
Continuing the vibe while raising energy level—just what a Side One/Track Two should do. A pop gem rescued and taken front and center.

03 Sweetest Thing (3:05, b-side to “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”)
Takes the “yearning love song” slot. Warm and sprightly—in contrast with the self-serious plod of “With or Without You”—it has a note of self-deprecating charm. Not to be confused with the 1998 “Single Mix,” by the way, which manages to drain all joy from the song, along with most of its charm.

04 Trip Through Your Wires (3:32)
The good times keep rolling—though they can’t last. U2’s most successful “country” experiment, melding ecstatic Louvin Brothers harmonies and raggedy harmonica with a raw pub-rock stomp, without ever seeming false or forced.

05 Deep In The Heart (4:31, b-side to “Still Haven’t Found”)
“Running To Stand Still” had to get the chop; its weepy dobro the most glaring example of U2’s reach for roots-music “authenticity” exceeding their grasp. “Deep In The Heart,” all four-track murk and dubwise rhythms, steers clear of Big Statements in favor of a hazy, spooked sensuality. This is about as sexy as U2 ever gets, and also slots into their seemingly-inexhaustible canon of heroin songs—without which no album is complete.

06 Bullet the Blue Sky (4:32)
We’re into Side Two and well on the downward slide now. The crashbox drums of “Trip Through Your Wires” are back, but now they’re the sound of a big machine going off the rails. The narcotic dream of “Deep In The Heart” teeters over into the nightmare of history.

07 Silver and Gold (4:42, performed by Bono with Keith Richards and Ron Wood: originally released on Artist United Against Apartheid, Sun City)
You know the one: This song was written in a hotel room in New York City... but this is the version that Bono recorded by himself in that hotel room, before the rest of the band got their hands on it for the self-righteous pompfest heard on Rattle and Hum. If there was ever a moment when any member of U2 ever touched the spine-tingling quality of the blues, this was it. It’s revelatory—a flesh-creeping fever dream of a song.

08 Exit (4:10)
And it gets worse before it gets better. Deeper into black, here’s where we bottom out. Sure, it’s melodramatic—but melodrama can be the motor for great pop. A pummeling, relentless swirl of guitars and creepy electronic squiggles, it’s a sonic death-trip, but man, what a ride.

09 One Tree Hill (5:24)
Through death and out the other side. A funeral, a remembrance, an acknowledgement, a memento mori. Bono sounds half-asleep, possessed, speaking in tongues—caught up in something bigger than us, something crushing but nurturing, too. It’s not joyous, but there’s an exultant quality to its sadness.

10 I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For (4:39)
Here begins the summing up. As a Side One/Track Two, “Still Haven’t Found” sounds good-natured, almost blithe—a shrug of the shoulders, a modern-rock “Is That All There Is?” But here, after all the love and betrayal and injustice and untimely death and all with no answers to show for it—not even religious faith brings peace or certainty—it’s a heartbreaker.

11 Luminous Times (4:38, b-side to “With or Without You”)
Takes us out bloodied but unbowed, doubts and questions unresolved but subsumed in a bleak epiphany. A litany of disaster imagery culminates in a fierce, proud admission—I love you ‘cause I need to, not because I need you—while Eno and the band build their tower of song. We’ve journeyed through the territories of despair, and what have we got left? Only love. Hold on to love. It’s not the answer—indeed, love has never sounded like such cold comfort—but it’s all we’ve got. And in that slowly-turning monolith of chords, it’s enough. Because it has to be.

By: Jack Feerick
Published on: 2005-10-31
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