The justification for U2’s current tour — in which they play their classic breakthrough album The Joshua Tree in its entirety — is that the album has taken on new life once more in the context of 2017’s warped version of America. Back in the ‘80s, this was the Irish quartet’s first big look outward, expanding beyond their early work rooted in their Dublin adolescence and switching gears from the Europe-indebted sonic territory of 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. For a band we now only know as impossibly massive, global, and universal, it’s strange to think about — the idea of them once being as heart-on-sleeve as they are now, but restrained to topics more specific and personal. There were percolations on The Unforgettable Fire, and then The Joshua Tree is where U2 truly became U2 as we knew them. Functionally, they were looking deeper into pop and rock heritage, toying with blues and gospel and country. Suddenly, you had Bono playing a harmonica. Thematically, they were grasping at big, spiritual questions in the context of Americana, crafting the album in an era where it seemed as if the longevity of the American Dream was in danger.
In all the press surrounding the tour, you could be cynical about the band’s insistence that returning to one of their landmark albums for its 30th anniversary was not a nostalgic venture. You could be cynical about their claims that some of these songs revealed themselves to U2 anew, that they were meditating on how the cycle has worked itself back around and there was an unnerving degree to which Trump’s 2017 America felt like a mutated echo of Reagan’s 1987 America.
But when you consider an album originally titled The Two Americas in 2017, it’s hard not to feel that renewed resonance. When you consider an album that was characterized by a spiritual search through the literal and symbolic wasteland of the American landscape, specifically the American desert, it’s hard not to feel that resonance. When you consider an album concerned with the destructive fallouts of American international policies in the era of xenophobic promises of the wall and the travel ban, it’s hard not to feel that resonance. And when you consider an album about the most powerful country in the world and what it means from the perspective of an outsider, it’s hard not to hear their questions pounding in your head all the louder 30 years later: We still believe in this promise, why don’t you?
This is, of course, uniquely giant and complex stuff to untangle. And U2 is, of course, uniquely giant, and has often had an ability to convey ideas in broad enough terms as to be relatable and universal, with subtleties lurking underneath if you cared to look for them. But the sheer weight of it all is definitely a starting point to get around — you need a particularly loud voice to talk about all of this convincingly at a stadium show. And all these years later, whatever you think about U2, that is one thing that has not diminished about them whatsoever. They have a gravity, a presence, four guys on a stage amidst a sea of thousands and thousands of people.
It’s easy to underestimate the power of classic songs. Sure, everyone knows them, and they will get a fervent reaction at a big mainstream show. But U2’s take no prisoners hits lineup for the beginning of their show last night at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ was still on some kind of different level. They opened with the grouping of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “New Year’s Day,” “Bad,” and “Pride (In The Name Of Love)” — which, aside from all being calling card songs for this band, also paved a sonic and narrative recap of their earlier years towards the beginning of The Joshua Tree. That means the show started with four of their most iconic songs, and then went into the album’s unstoppable opening salvo of “Where The Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With Or Without You.” Nobody should be able to open a show with a string of songs like that. At least, nobody should be able to open a show like that and maintain any kind of momentum.
And people lost it through this section of the show. It is one thing to see a famous, ubiquitous song performed live. It’s another to see it live, and to see a floor of a stadium jumping and singing in unison, to feel it take on some kind of new life and hit you in different ways than it ever had before. “Bad” could’ve been a closer. “Pride” could’ve been. And then the sprawling screen behind the stage lit up all in red, with a silhouette of a Joshua tree, as the rising synths of “Where The Streets Have No Name” bubbled up. By the time the band launched into the song in earnest, they were in formation together, backlit by a black and white video of a desert highway racing forward. It is hard to totally capture the impact of it all. That song has to be one of the greatest openers ever; it has to be one of the pop songs best suited for soaring, stadium-sized sing-alongs and catharsis. It played like a benediction, and it was only the beginning of the story in earnest.
Where The Joshua Tree begins with yearning and questioning, it quickly turns to darker places — and it quickly turns to lesser known songs. As the band reached side B of the album, Bono quipped that they were “newcomers” there. But for fans who have seen the band plenty through the years, this was as rewarding as the hit onslaught earlier — to hear songs never or rarely or intermittently performed in the past, from “Red Hill Mining Town” to “In God’s Country” and “Mothers Of The Disappeared.” The latter ended things as it does on the album, like a fractured prayer.
At each of these shows, U2 also returns for an encore that — especially given venue curfews — operates as another barrage of hits. It’s not as thematically linked (“Vertigo” and “Elevation” don’t exactly have the same weight-of-the-world concerns as the Joshua Tree material), though they do place some connective tissue there, as well — like following “Mothers Of The Disappeared” with “Miss Sarajevo,” updated with the backdrop of the Syrian refugee crisis. And finally, it ended with “One,” with Bono’s customary speech highlighting all his peers in the fight against HIV/AIDS, before sharing a final thought before the song began, one sentiment that summed up the band’s message from across the night: “We don’t have to agree on everything if the one thing we agree on is important enough.”
The thing about U2 is that, in almost any of their forms these past four decades, they always offer some degree of transcendence. They can’t help it. This is what makes them uncool; they are too earnest, still true believers in the possibilities of salvation via pop music. This is also what makes them what they are — legends, an institution, well beyond the levels of even some of our biggest stars today. Sure, you leave the show and you still have a three hour trip home reading about our president’s latest temper tantrum on Twitter. But for the time U2 was onstage, you could be transported back to those songs, and forward with those songs. These are songs that reminded you how many different kinds of people across countries and generations one artist, one voice can impact — and, in turn, they are songs that remind you that fighting for a better world, even when it zigs and zags over thirty years, might just be worth it.
“Sunday Bloody Sunday”
“New Year’s Day”
“Pride (In The Name Of Love)”
The Joshua Tree
“Where The Streets Have No Name”
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”
“With Or Without You”
“Bullet The Blue Sky”
“Running To Stand Still”
“Red Hill Mining Town”
“In God’s Country”
“Trip Through Your Wires”
“One Tree Hill”
“Mothers Of The Disappeared”
“Ultraviolet (Light My Way)”