In the world of pop music, it’s hard to overstate the importance of U2’s The Joshua Tree. The album’s cinematic soundscapes and themes of longing, loss, and hope are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago, when the album first released.
I discovered this album much later—somewhere in the mid-1990s, during my own formative musical experiences. I was listening to the sounds of Jeff Buckley, Radiohead, the Smashing Pumpkins, and Pearl Jam, and finding my own way with the electric guitar. I joined a band in which I was by far the youngest member—a group of weekend warriors in their late 30s and early 40s who played covers by Journey, Queen, and Van Halen. It was far from glamorous for a 16-year-old, but I loved making music, and I thought it might be a good learning experience. (It was, but that’s another story.)
One day at practice, Scott—our band’s frontman—suggested we add “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” to the repertoire, and I confessed I didn’t know it. My confession was met with gasps, like admitting to a fatal hit-and-run. Scott nodded. “I’m about to change your life,” he said.
Musically speaking, he was right.
Of course I’d heard U2 before, but I’d never really listened. The Joshua Tree drew me in like a moth to the flame; I fell down the U2 rabbit hole, absorbing all of their records, and I’ve been a shameless fanboy ever since.
Even as I absorbed War and Pop and Achtung Baby, I kept coming back to The Joshua Tree. Prior to that record, The Edge had always had a sound of his own, but here, it opened up. What had previously been great rock would forever become the stuff of legend: a sound like an instrument echoing off of icy cliffs, a sound that would give birth to a thousand imitators. I was in love.
But The Joshua Tree transcends even The Edge’s evolution. It was groundbreaking for its time not only for its sound, and not only for its songs, but also for its prophetic ethos. The album remains a singular statement that resonates with passion and clarity, even 30 years later.
Rock music has always had a prophetic edge. Its roots are in folk music and the blues, both of which have their origins among people who are oppressed. That’s especially true of the blues, which rose out of African-American Gospel songs in the late 19th century. It’s the sound of people whose celebrations are a way of laughing at an oppressor, and whose laments bubble up from frustrated lives. We hear it in Blind Lemon Jefferson and Leadbelly, in B. B. King and John Lee Hooker. In folk music, we hear it in Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen. They are the voices of people who looked at the world, saw its brokenness, sadness, and injustice, and sang their songs both in spite of and against it.
In our day, there are a handful of voices whose work remains prophetic. I think of how Radiohead’s OK Computer bore witness to the onslaught of a technocratic world and anticipated its dehumanizing effects. I think of Jay-Z’s The Black Album, which gave voice to the experience of young African-American men. The song “99 Problems” isn’t just an amusing joke, which is how often it’s interpreted; it’s a commentary on how black men are perceived in our world.
I also think of The Joshua Tree, an album that came out the same year as Guns N’ Roses’s Appetite for Destruction. This was the height of 1980s decadence, the height of the Cold War, a time of economic prosperity, social inequity, and nuclear fear. Some, like Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard, seemed ready to bring on the apocalypse so long as they had a drink in their hand and a woman in their bed.
But then came The Joshua Tree.
Bono sang of a city where the streets have no name; he lamented that he still hadn’t found what he was looking for. In “Bullet the Blue Sky,” he gives a vision of cash being paid out for a war machine, inspired by the violence of El Salvador’s civil war. He laments on “In God’s Country” that “every day the dreamers die” and sees himself standing among the sons of Cain: cursed and exiled.
In 1985 and 1986, Bono and U2 traveled the world, took part in anti-war and anti-Apartheid protests, and experienced the death of their friend and Bono’s assistant, Greg Carroll. Bono has said that, during this period, his marriage was strained.
The production of the album was long and belabored. There was infighting, recording and re-recording, and last-minute personnel changes among the production team. The album itself gets its title from The Joshua Tree National Park, a stark landscape in Southern California. It’s full of songs written about and from a spiritual desert.
U2’s Christian Roots
Much has been written about the religious roots of U2’s music. The New Yorker, The Huffington Post, and Sojourners describe those roots, and Bono recently sat down with Eugene Peterson to talk about his faith and the importance of the Psalms in his life. In one interview, he gets downright apologetic:
[Jesus] went around saying he was the Messiah. That’s why he was crucified. He was crucified because he said he was the Son of God. So, he either, in my view, was the Son of God or he was nuts. Forget rock-and-roll messianic complexes—I mean Charlie Manson-type delirium. And I find it hard to accept that whole millions and millions of lives—half the Earth, for 2,000 years—have been touched, have felt their lives touched and inspired by some nutter. I just, I don’t believe it.
And while at times it seems Bono wants to keep the church at a distance, his faith bleeds through his music, especially in the profoundly eschatological The Joshua Tree. It preaches against injustice, laments loss, and cries out with hope that their might be something meaningful left in the world.
That longing is a longing for meaningful worship. We are all, in Harold Best’s words, “unceasing worshipers,” continuously pouring out our lives for something. We’re “dying to give ourselves away to something,” as David Foster Wallace put it. In The Joshua Tree, the band searched for a greater calling. And in the work they did in the years leading up to it—in the trips to impoverished parts of South America, in protest concerts in Ireland, in projects that spoke out against Apartheid—they found a calling. If there’s one thing that they’ve consistently done ever since, it’s that they’ve tried to save the world.
One might accuse U2 of idealism, yet the momentum of The Joshua Tree is just the opposite. It begins with “Where the Streets Have No Name”—by far the most joyous of the album’s songs—and ends with “Mothers of the Disappeared,” a stark reflection on abductions and killings in El Salvador. “We hear their heartbeat,” Bono sings of the disappeared, clinging to some kind of hope. But the story is clear. As much as “Where the Streets Have No Name” shines a light, the album as a whole is about the darkness; it’s about the desert.
Perhaps that’s why it struck such a chord when it released. It was a spiritual reality check, calling out the emptiness of a consumeristic, triumphalistic culture. Like all great art, it told the truth about the world at a time when others were saying something very untrue about it.
Perhaps that’s also why it continues to resonate today. U2 is currently on tour celebrating the 30th anniversary of the album, and stadiums of people will join with Bono singing about a place where the streets have no name and confessing that they’re still looking for something fulfilling. “I believe in the kingdom come,” they’ll sing. It was, and it remains, the only real hope in the desert.