Sunday, 12 October 2014

U2: The Joshua Tree





(#343: 21 March 1987, 2 weeks)

Track listing: 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/Exit/Mothers Of The Disappeared

“I’m looking for something.
Someone who wants to see and can.
Nothing’s alive anymore.
Is this the universal plan?
And I can see ahead my eyes are infinite.
Speaking with the dead but nothing’s definite.”
(Annette Peacock, “A Loss Of Consciousness,” 1968)

You know the story – how a rock singer travelled the world, on tour with his group or on humanitarian fact-finding missions to Ethiopia, El Salvador and Nicaragua, experienced, saw, heard and read about one America while dreaming of another, and then came back to Dublin only to find the same desert around him wherever he went, a metaphorical desert which, even at home, told him that there was no longer a place called home, that this was a destroyed or destroying world in which nothing could grow, and left him with the question of how to survive in a world which was almost totally against him.

Was it 1986 or 2014? The same villains and culprits, but with different names; a common cause for the blood, suffering and deaths. The Joshua Tree is the story of an attempt by that rock group to make, or persuade, something grow in this desert.

Like The Unforgettable Fire, Eno and Lanois were more or less in charge; they oversaw the recording on an alternating weekly shift basis. Unlike The Unforgettable Fire, the group wanted to make more tangible songs about things that mattered to them. Anecdotally, the division of labour seems to have been as before, the balance slightly weighed in favour of Lanois, although the band called in Steve Lillywhite at a very late stage, and much to the two producers’ chagrin, to remix three songs with a view to making them stand out more on the radio, as singles, although he did not remix “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and remixed the album-only “Bullet The Blue Sky.” The final running order, subject to Bono’s insistence that “Streets” and “Mothers” should top and tail the record, was decided by Lillywhite’s wife, Kirsty MacColl.

Despite this, The Joshua Tree largely sounds like an Eno-dominant record, whereas Robbie Robertson’s eponymous debut solo album, released a few months later, and partly involving U2, was unmistakably a Lanois job. Moreover, it sounds like one of Eno’s ambient studies which continually gets gatecrashed by a rock group. Hence the residual drift from Apollo which slowly sails into sight at the album’s beginning is eventually joined, and then superseded, by the Edge’s urgent, delay echo-aided, high-toned six-note guitar arpeggio, Mullen’s thunderous drumming and Clayton’s Jah Wobble-ish bass; it is unrealistic to expect the U2 of 1986 to have been aware of Acid House, something that only began to gain popularity slightly later in 1987, but there is that same hyperactive propulsion, the need not to stop moving.

Lyrically there are enough winds, storms, nails, stones, poison and rain in this record to fill several Bibles. But it’s clear from Bono’s delivery that he is running away from something; so he is not merely thinking of the unnamed streets of the parched backlands of Ethiopia, but of the streets in Belfast where people can be named and their religion identified on the basis of the street in which they live. The song’s proposal, if we take Bono’s “you” as meaning “us,” is for humanity to rip it up and start again.

“I Still Haven’t Found…” is half the speed, but Mullen’s very familiar drumming tattoo puts us in mind of a sequel to “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” and while I am sure that Eno, a devotee of gospel music, prodded the group to record a gospel song (“You say you’re Christians – well, here’s your chance to prove it!,” although Bono was at the time listening to groups like the Swan Silvertones), this remains a song of profound doubt. In spite of all the torment the singer puts himself through, we are back in the land of “My Elusive Dreams,” and Bono’s is an uncertainty which even the backing “choir” (multitracked Edge, Lanois and instantly recognisable Eno) cannot assuage. If anything, the most telling musical commentary here is made by the Edge, whose guitar growls and swoops like an onomatopoeic heir to Keith Levene – despite all the talk about going back to roots, this remains post-punk music.

Likewise, “With Or Without You” builds up slowly and patiently, the Edge deploying Michael Brook’s “infinite guitar” to create drones and atmospherics rather than soloing or riffing as such – I read somewhere that one major influence on the Edge’s playing during this period was Bill Frisell, and if you listen to the latter’s work on two other important 1987 releases, Power Tools’ Strange Meeting and John Zorn’s Spillane, there are definite affinities – with Bono sounding remarkably like Ian McCulloch (“With Or Without You” is on record as being the first U2 song that McCulloch liked!). Is he singing about a lover, or his audience, or his music, or to God? As his suffering incrementally increases, the music  patiently gathers in intensity, before bursting open – this is where Lillywhite comes in – before settling down again, away from the foreground.

The nearest that the Edge comes to playing a “solo” is on “Bullet The Blue Sky,” but again he goes for swooping downward runs – like the eagle come to peck the last bones out of Reagan’s America – or lines of feedback and sustain which stop just short of chaos. Bono solemnly sings, then breathlessly narrates a dream ofAmerica versus what Reagan ‘s administration was actually doing to the people of El Salvador, as though the idyll is repeatedly being interrupted, intruded upon, by a money-mad gangster. Aided by Mullen’s clattering drum figures, which could have come from the introduction to Elvis Costello’s “I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea,” we have to realise that what we are witnessing here is a remoulding of rock which doesn’t have any clear precedents, and is different in kind to what the Smiths and New Order are doing. “Bullet” sounds like the middle section of “Whole Lotta Love” stripped of all machoness and posturing – reducing rock, or enlarging it, with the aim of making “rock music” exceed itself. When Bono speaks of the howling women and children running into the arms of America, and the music dissolves, we think of that last line’s double meaning where “arms” could mean weapons – it is one of the most chilling final moments in any rock music (see also “America Is Waiting,” the opening track of Eno and Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts).

But side one ends, or culminates in, piano, with occasional stray pedal steel and harmonica figures, as though heard from six floors above, and the numbing requiem “Running To Stand Still,” about a couple, hopelessly addicted to heroin, in Dublin’s Ballymun flats, around which the young Bono played as a child (“I see seven towers, but I only see one way out”). You go all around the world, but always end up where you started because you cannot escape yourself. The rhythm section rumbles in for a brief spell to remind us that once the Velvet Underground recorded a song called “Heroin,” but otherwise the landscape, and the protagonists’ lives, steadily diminish – and not once does the singer call moral judgment on their plight. I note the scat refrain which may derive from “Whiskey In The Jar” and wonder whether the band had Phil Lynott in mind.

If side one had all “the hits,” then side two goes somewhere very different – and where have we heard that before in terms of major rock albums involving Eno? Not so different that it jettisons lyrics, or the group – at least not initially. But we are barely halfway through “Red Hill Mining Town,” a more conventional, if still pained, emotive rocker which reminds us of where people like Radiohead got their start – Bono probably means his “I’m still waiting”s more than Diana Ross did – before synthesisers again appear on the horizon and those booming gospel harmonies return (a brass band can also be heard). And yet this is no cod-American mythology – the cover shots in the desert-cum-national park (if you’re wondering why the band look so pained, it’s because it was bloody freezing out there when Corbijn took the photos) may actually be a red herring for the record as a whole – since it’s a song about a community torn apart by the 1984-5 miners’ strike (based on the late Tony Parker’s observational study Red Hill: A Mining Community). Like Parker, they take no sides – and at the time came into some criticism for not so doing – but merely report on what they see.

“In God’s Country”,” a sceptical salute to the Statue of Liberty, is a fine if standard example of uptempo U2. But “Trip Through Your Wires” – salvation through love – underlines a few parallels in its 6/8 gait, particularly the Smiths (“Back To The Old House”), the Cocteau Twins (the way in which Mullen’s drumming is mixed, booming and cavernous) and R.E.M.; if Life’s Rich Pageant practically picked you up in your chair, deposited you in the outside world and instructed you to look at, appreciate and absorb it, then The Joshua Tree ponders what you should do with the world once you’re out there. Bono plays harmonica (in between gleeful vocal whoops) and the Edge plays guitar as though they don’t know how to play the harmonica or the guitar (cf. Miles’ instructions to John McLaughlin on In A Silent Way).

“One Tree Hill” is remarkable; an ode to U2 roadie Greg Carroll, who was originally a Maori from New Zealand but was killed in a motorcycle accident in Dublin in 1986 (and to whom the album is dedicated) sung over what sounds like 1981 electronica, but what gradually reveals itself as being a trio of string players (the Armin family from Toronto, no less), and also in part a tribute to Victor Jara, Bono’s vocal goes from restrained to disturbed to howls of uncontained grief. Some critics see Bono as the sticking point on this record, but I can think of no other way to deliver these thoughts, these messages – Bono, if anything, sounds more like a medium for the words. The song ends with an electronic requiem (“Oh, great ocean…”) which is essentially just Bono and Eno, and the parallel example of the Waterboys' This Is The Sea cannot have been far from their minds.

But “Exit” remains one of the darkest things U2 have ever done; reconstituted by Eno from elements of a jam session, the music lurks about in corners of night before twice breaking through into a riff so decisive, intense and frightening that it’s little wonder that the music finally backs away from it. The recording is like a mis-assembled jigsaw puzzle of U2 (see also Roxy Music’s “The Bogus Man”). In the foreground, meanwhile, Bono murmurs of – what? Who? A killer, of others or of himself? Somebody with too much misapplied power (“So hands that build can also pull down the hands of love”)? This is far, far away from the easy answers of “Two Hearts Beat As One.”

The closing “Mothers Of The Disappeared,” about the bereaved mothers of the El Salvador conflict (and indirectly also the Chile one, and there may have been others in Bono’s mind), hardly sounds like there’s any U2 left, beginning with fourteen seconds of rain falling on a roof, and then a melody which, although Bono came up with it in the course of writing a song to teach the children of Ethiopia about basic hygiene, sounds, as it is played, like an offcut from Another Green World. As Bono urges, at the close of the song and the record, that we “see their tears in the rainfall” – the album at times sounds like one elongated crucifixion – and we wonder exactly where we’ve heard that combination of bass guitar lead and drum pattern before, not to mention what is going on with the synthesisers in the background. They come, respectively, from “Atmosphere” and “Warszawa,” and as the song ends, U2 disappear, and we are left with the Eno record that we had at the beginning, as though U2, and hope, were but hopeless dreams, and the reality that, even in 1987, we couldn’t yet escape the ghost of Joy Division.

I’m sure, however, that many of the twenty-five million people who have, to date, bought The Joshua Tree, had another 1980 ghost in mind. Charles Shaar Murray unhelpfully referred to them as the “Irish rock messiahs,” but the fact remains that for an awful lot of people – both of the Joy Division (i.e. our) generation and the Woodstock one of the sixties – The Joshua Tree’s impact was as if rock music had been saved; here, going against all odds, was a rock group who believed in something, just as rock groups were supposed to have done in the sixties, and were not afraid to comment on the world around it. Many in 1987 still hadn’t got over the death of Lennon – the Beatles’ back catalogue finally began to appear on CD throughout the year, and Sgt Pepper very nearly made a return visit to number one that summer – and therefore viewed The Joshua Tree as a record worthy of what a Lennon might have done.

But the record’s ultimate importance lies in how radically the group and its producers were prepared to reshape and recast the basic building blocks of rock, as well as the message which it finally conveyed, namely that even in a desert where nothing can apparently grow, and living in a world which is almost totally against you, you still have no choice but to do what that other Dublin fellow, Mr Beckett (eighty-one in 1987, still alive to hear the record), proposed, namely to keep going. Its achievement is to say that death, metaphorical or otherwise, does not have to be definite. The Joshua Tree is one of the classic number one albums.

2 comments:

Anthony said...

Excellent reappraisal, and certainly the radical undercurrent of the record puts the about-face of Achtung Baby in perspective. It's always annoyed me that the U2 of the 2000's have actually bought into the line that they're this earnest populist rock group when they were always a bit spikier and more complicated than that - your piece articulates that point beautifully.

George L said...

I never owned this album, though a housemate of mine used to play it a lot. Never a big U2 fan myself, but it is a good, solid album. The hits got a little overplayed on the radio, but what can you say?