I grew up in a Christian home and went to a Christian school during the heyday of MTV, so I was nowhere near U2 while they were establishing themselves as one of the biggest bands on Earth. Little did I know that though they were far away, they were still so close. As I approached adolescence, I had one of the essential music moments in my life, one that I think any music lover can share: hearing an album for the first time that is like an awakening, opening your eyes to what music can be, changing the way you listen from that point on. That moment was the day a friend shared The Joshua Tree by U2 with me. Seeing that it is the 30th anniversary of this classic, some appreciation is in order.
The Joshua Tree is U2’s crowning achievement, a fixture on nearly every critic’s “Best of” album list, and one of the certified best-selling albums of all time with over 25 million copies sold. Living as we do in a fog of digital music that measures success in subscriptions, singles, and streams, it is easy to take this for granted. But The Joshua Tree was the number one album in 20 different countries at a time when full albums mattered. It won the Grammy for 1987’s Album of the Year, and in 2014, the US Library of Congress chose it for the National Recording Registry, a collection of the most culturally significant works in audio recording. As Rolling Stone put it at the time, the album release and subsequent tour was U2’s “all-but-official coronation as the World’s Biggest Rock Band.”
Also at that time, Rolling Stone described U2 as “Christians”, or more specifically “three young Christians and the token nonbeliever”, something that would make many current artists cringe, or at least fear for their careers. But U2’s faith was on display from their earliest albums, including most of October and explicitly on the beloved tracks “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “40” from War. Their faith was still prominent enough by the conclusion of The Joshua Tree that it defined them. One has to wonder, given the “evangelical” quest for a sympathetic pop culture icon, how Christians missed the opportunity to capitalize on the world’s biggest rock band.
Blame the art. The popular singles, “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and “With or Without You”, are essential pieces in the U2 catalog, with their soaring melodies, Bono’s passionate vocals, and The Edge’s iconic delayed arpeggios. But they are songs of seeking, of tension between faith and doubt, of longing and desire that may remain unrealized. There is hope – ‘I believe in the kingdom come / then all the colors will bleed into one’ – but with the boldness and honesty to admit uncertainty – ‘Yes, I’m still running / I still haven’t found what I’m looking for’. The album opens with “Streets”, a track that builds slowly as a sunrise and bursts like sunlight, bright and full of potential. However, from there the songs are primarily an exploration of difficulty, pain, and loss, with almost every song telling a different story or addressing a particular issue. In that sense, the album moves as though from day to night, with some of their darkest material, “Exit” and “Mothers of the Disappeared”, concluding the album. As they have spoken of at length, U2 selected the album imagery of a Joshua tree in the desert of the American southwest to represent this tension: the barrenness of the desert contrasted with the growth of a tree named for the Old Testament hero, branches raised like arms in praise. The Joshua Tree is their story of America, the nation they saw, and still see, as both a beacon of freedom and yet entangled with problems both home and abroad. Political and military conflicts at the time in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Chile are the backdrop to “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared”. They drew parallels between the salt of the earth here and in their homeland of Ireland: the plight of miners in the UK the inspiration for “Red Hill Mining Town”, and a heroin-addicted couple living in Dublin the subject of “Running to Stand Still”, both of which easily translate to the American experience. “Red Hill Mining Town”, my favorite track on the album, is such a beautiful piece of music, and one that communicates the desperation and pain of a laborer faced with the loss of livelihood. If only such an album and such subject matter could have been on the list of budding Christian music stars of the 1980s such as Amy Grant, Sandi Patty, or Michael W. Smith.
U2 is touring this summer to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, playing every song of the album every night of the tour in addition to much of their other music. Most dates have already sold out, but there are still a few venues with tickets available (how about it, Pittsburgh?). Whether you are a longtime fan or looking for something new to discover, The Joshua Tree remains as rich and relevant a musical experience as you will find, the defining work of one of the true living legends in music.