The Joshua Tree Label: Island
At the risk of someone holding up as moronic one of my writ-on-deadline reviews 20 years from now, here's a snippet of Steve Pond's Rolling Stone review of The Joshua Tree in 1987: "The stakes are enormous, and U2 knows it. Its last album, The Unforgettable Fire, contained 'Pride (In the Name of Love),' its biggest-selling single ever...U2 is poised to rise from the level of mere platinum groups to the more rarefied air above...The Joshua Tree is U2's most varied, subtle and accessible album, although it doesn't contain any sure-fire smash hits."
As if U2 were standing at a precipice. U2 didn't know what to do. The commercial forces swirling around the band confused it into making an album many critics called uncommercial, with not a hit single in the bunch. The record could be in the cutout bins faster than Andrew Ridgeley's. And Bono might wither away without chart popularity.
All of the above, by the way, was possible. But none of it happened, which makes the naysayers at the time seem downright silly, or at least myopic. U2 rode to its highest peak of commercial success with this decidedly uncommercial record, unleashing single after hit single on the charts. While many of us at the time believed in the purity of Bono's political beliefs and have grown up since – in the process, gaining an understanding that little in life is purely black or white, but if you at least try to make a difference, you're headed somewhere good – this album found Bono questioning those beliefs, laying out the whole lonely process in sometimes overwrought lyrical imagery.
And we responded to Bono – his soul bared in simple verse, his bandmates enveloping his moody vignettes and celebratory choruses in stark, sparse sounds that perfectly captured the moment — by buying millions of copies. Speaking of bandmates, the Edge, in particular, elevated his game from noisemaker to artist on The Joshua Tree, laying down beautiful guitar textures perfectly appropriate for the songs. Listen afresh to "Where the Streets Have No Name" and imagine its mood without those singular riffs. "Bullet the Blue Sky" is nothing without the Edge cutting loose with ferocious sounds only he could make. His tinkling rhythm line is the engine that drove the opening strains of "With or Without You" straight to the top of the pops; without it, it's just more of Bono’s usual whining to himself.
Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, by the way, get major props for putting together the whole sonic jigsaw puzzle and giving the world an all-time great record that still holds up after 20 years. Of course, in the two decades since Pond's Rolling Stone review appeared, U2's been killed and buried twice after a couple of so-so records and annoyingly over-the-top tours that the fans skipped. Yet our faith in U2's vision for a better world always fuels a resurrection, none more intense than the band's post-9/11 Super Bowl halftime performance. It reminded us old people – and showed new legions of fans – what the band's about: Great commercial pop, politics gracefully woven in, taken together as an unforgettable moment.
This all started with The Joshua Tree. At the time, it sounded so different, so fresh. The joyous punk-blues of "Trip through Your Wires" was far from U2's previous hit anthems like "I Will Follow" and "Sunday Bloody Sunday." The distorted Irish-Baptist strains of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" might have been Bono musing toward the heavens, but it could have just as easily been radio listeners looking for good tuneage: at the time, Michael Jackson, Prince, Madonna, and all the others were busy cranking out thinly veiled collections of singles disguised as studio albums (I'll grant you, the scales fell off Prince's eyes with Sign o’ the Times) and having pissing contests to see who could sell more total units or log the most weeks at number one on the singles chart. It was a silly time for major-label rock, a world about to cave in on itself, under the weight of Nirvana, Napster, and its own greed.
So many old-guard major labels have died or merged since The Joshua Tree, and countless bands came and went during the upheavals as rock waited for the next Elvis, who turned out to be Jack White. The RIAA went from unnoticed trade association to the bane of every college student's existence. Billboard’s singles chart (do they still call it The Hot 100, even?) represents a niche market. This brave post-Internet world's even reduced Rolling Stone to mostly a minor-league hip-hop gossip rag complete with its own reality show. (Jann Wenner trying to rebuild street cred through reality TV? John Lennon just flipped over in his grave.)
U2 survived all this mayhem, on the strength of its convictions and a spirit of musical innovation it first harnessed on The Joshua Tree. Here's hoping for the band's swift retirement, before the players start looking Rolling-Stones pathetic.