Usually there’s an immediately evident appeal for a mega-selling records. Thriller and Dark Side of the Moon are undisputed heavyweight masterpieces that happen to be the number one and two selling records of all time.
But I find The Joshua Tree (outsold, incidentally, by the Spice Girls’ Spice) alternately boring and irritating. I’ve had friends speak of how producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois created this layered majestic production but I just don’t hear it. It’s not U2’s worst record, thanks to Rattle and Hum and Pop, but it’s the one where they lost the thread.
Until Joshua Tree, U2 was a new wave, post-punk band. Unforgettable Fire saw them hooking up with Eno and adding spacier, European elements to their sound. But as experimental as that was, it was still within the ballpark of their peers in PiL, Sousxie and the Banshees and Echo and the Bunnymen. With the Joshua Tree, U2 made a conscious decision to discard that post punk sound in favor of classic rock style Americana. But they’re not good enough musicians to record a country blues album, so instead they made a post modern grain silo of a record that reflects classic rock gone by without really adding anything too new.
The record kicks off with four songs I would pay to never hear again: “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” With or Without You” and “Bullet the Blue Sky.” “WTSHNN” is U2 at its most plodding and deliberate, featuring three drawn-out introductions before the song’s melody kicks in. “ISHFWILF” and “WOWY” are essentially the same song; a weepy, hookless exercise in acoustic minimalism that wears out its welcome by the second verse. BTBS is 20 seconds worth of cool guitar sound effects spread over four and a half minutes of a rhythm section flop-sweating through “When the Levee Breaks.” “Running to a Stand Still” is a relief but it’s also essentially a remake of the superior Unforgettable Fire track “Bad.”
The second side is an improvement, with stand out tracks like “In God’s Country” and “Red Hill Mining Town.” “Trip Through Your Wires” is a harbinger of the inept blues-rock of Rattle and Hum. Otherwise, it’s filler that would someday serve as blueprints for Coldplay’s career.
Throughout the album, they’re using slide guitar, harmonica, acoustic guitars; essentially the same palette employed on classic rock chestnuts like Highway 61 Revisited and Beggars Banquet. U2 and producer Brian Eno are less technically adept but more clever than their classic rock antecedents. They use those sounds as texture, mood and accents. The slide guitar in “BTBS” doesn’t create a melody. It instills a sense of dread. A similar atmospheric effect is achieved with the church-like organ intro of “WTSHNN” and the harmonica in “Trip Through Your Wires.”
In a lot of ways, Joshua Tree is a post-modern document, assembled from borrowed materials to comment on how those materials were previously used. Which makes it sort of interesting, but not good.