Over the past year, Adele’s 21 has sold a few gajillion copies and sent plenty of music writers on soul-searching journeys trying to figure out why that happened and what it means. My own personal theory: For the first time in a while, a studio album sounds like a greatest-hits collection; it’s not hard to imagine any of the album’s tracks getting serious radio rotation 20 years from now. Over the years, we’ve heard an elite few studio albums that have that distinction; I’d say it belongs to records as disparate as Def Leppard’s Hysteria, Michael Jackson’s Bad, and Taylor Swift’s Fearless (the last one before 21). The first Killers album was about half of a greatest hits album, but it loses momentum as it goes. And then there’s U2, who have four or five of those albums to their credit. The greatest of those is The Joshua Tree, and it turns 25 today.
It’s weird to think that it took less than five years for U2 to get from the wailing sincerity of The Joshua Tree to the monolithic but wry dance-pop of Achtung Baby, but that’s what happened. And maybe it happened because U2 did everything that a huge and sincere rock band could plausibly be expected to do on The Joshua Tree, and after that, they had to embark on the sort of soul-searching journey that first led them to the embarrassing and self-aggrandizing blues toe-dipping of Rattle & Hum and then, finally, to Achtung Baby when that move didn’t work out. U2 were, of course, already a huge rock band by the time they got to The Joshua Tree, and previous efforts War and The Unforgettable Fire already sounded something like greatest-hits albums. They’d already worked with the production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. They’d already contributed a bunch of songs that will continue to live on classic-rock playlists until long after we’re all dead. But The Joshua Tree represented an absolute refinement of everything they’d already been doing. They dialed back the save-the-world theatrics, dialed up the sensual throb, and they came out sounding more calm and confident than ever before. They loosely patterned the album around the vague theme of America, and Americans rewarded them by buying 10 million copies of it.
It’s easy to make fun of U2 for their messianic tendencies, tendencies that are on full display on the album, but the final product is just bulletproof. The opening salvo (“Where The Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With Or Without You,” “Bullet The Blue Sky”) is one for the ages, and the album doesn’t really fall off in quality after it. “Trip Through The Wires” is the sort of honking-harmonica bar-rock anthem that only Springsteen and maybe (maybe) Mellencamp were doing this well at the time, and it’s a good indicator of why the band felt like they could pull off the BB King experiments of Rattle & Hum. “Exit” is an overwrought stomp-wail that somehow comes off way better than it should. “Mothers Of The Disappeared” is one of the prettiest, most graceful moments in a catalog rich with them. Bono tried out goddam spoken-word on “Bullet The Blue Sky” and ended up sounding elemental and prophetic rather than ridiculous. The big stylistic leaps don’t feel big here, since the band sounded like nothing was outside its reach. It’s a band at the precise moment where they can’t fuck anything up, and there’s not a single weak part in the album’s 50 minutes. That’s really something. And to this day, the album is a huge part of the reason that the band gets to earn ungodly sums of money with gigantic stadium shows. Respect is due.
So: What’s your favorite song from The Joshua Tree? Or your favorite memory from the album? Does “With Or Without You” just give you Ross and Rachel flashbacks, or is there something more substantive there? Or maybe Ross and Rachel flashbacks are enough? Share with us in the comments section, and check out some videos from the album below.