- 08 Mar 17
The Joshua Tree is a hopeful symbol in a world of chaos. Valentina Magli reveals some extraordinary facts about the album that turned U2 into superstars.
“Be strong and of good courage: for unto this people shalt thou divide for an inheritance the land which I sware unto their Fathers to give them” (Joshua, 1:6, KJV).
The gap between the ideal of the so-called Promised Land and the real America is one of the driving forces behind the most critically acclaimed of U2 albums, The Joshua Tree.
The essence of the album is shaped around the band’s musical exploration of American and Irish folk roots. In Ignatian terms, it celebrates, at once, Desolation and Consolation.
Throughout The Joshua Tree, we are confronted with the desolation of a deserted, immense, timeless landscape; and with a nation of progress and oppressors, in a place where dreams and violence co-exist.
The physical desolation of the desert is also related to the desert of the soul and the desert of ‘our love’, which finds its restoration in the spiritual triumph of a small solitary tree, itself apparently lost in the vastness of a hostile territory. This tree can survive very harsh conditions. It can live without water. Its branches are a cry for hope, reaching out like a form of prayer.
Thus, as the album unfolds, the void of the desert is invested with a mixture of spiritual relief and cinematic power. No other U2 album is as politically and spiritually dense as The Joshua Tree. Intimacy and expressive power go hand in hand, where the wide-open spaces of America meet the closest matters of the heart.
There are no filters: instead a powerful simplicity – a volcanic dynamism of sorts – that is rich in imagery and colour, rule.
The Joshua Tree varies from hard-hitting rock (‘Bullet the Blue Sky’) to acoustic blues (‘Running to Stand Still’). Compared to their first four records, the tracks here present a far wider variation of tone and nuance. The Edge’s delayed effect defines one of U2’s trademarks and Bono’s vocals are experimental like never before. During the band’s early years, their songs were primitive and spontaneously written. No longer. Despite their more rational and structured essence, however, these tracks retain a magical, poetic quality.
Ultimately, this is an epic album that reflects the enduring, resilient nature of the Joshua Tree itself.
FIVE KEYS TO THE POWER OF THE JOSHUA TREE
1) The Meaning of the Desert
The desert is the leit moti of the whole album. Following a 1985 trip to Ethiopia, Bono explained that witnessing people living in such poverty, but with such strong spirit, made him realise how “they may have a physical desert, but we’ve got other kinds of deserts.” He was attracted to the idea of the desert as a symbol, evoking not only the openness of the American landscape, but also its brutality and the pervading contemporary spiritual drought.
2) The Album As Spiritual Pilgrimage
The Joshua Tree is steeped in religious imagery. Biblical references abound and they alternate with strong and provocative images that would stir the blood of any listener. Spiritual faith was important to the band’s formation – and was doubtless a source of inspiration for many of the lyrics here, in which we find a mix of hope, faith, desolation, spiritual void, violence and political conflict. ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ may be interpreted as a spiritual quest. Jacob wrestles the Angel in ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’. The album as a whole evokes a kind of spiritual pilgrimage.
3) The Death of the Tree (Yucca Brevifolia)
The Joshua tree, which grows in fiercely adverse conditions, was seen by U2 as a symbol of faith and hope in the midst of aridity. The tree was named, by early Mormon settlers, after the Old Testament prophet Joshua, as its branches reminded them of Joshua raising his arms to pray. Photographer Anton Corbijn recalled that, on a reccie after the title of the album was decided, they spotted a lonely Joshua tree along Route 190. They stopped to take a few shots beside the tree in freezing temperatures. Because the idea was to portray a desert environment, the band were asked to remove their coats… thus their slightly grumpy facial expressions. They were freezing! The Joshua tree featured on the sleeve of the album is situated in California, in an area close to the famous Death Valley. The park has been named after the famous tree and it extends to the Mojave desert. The “U2 tree” was sadly vandalised in 2005 when one of its branches was cut off. However, the tree had officially died in the year 2000.
4) The Other House
The band rented Danesmote, a Georgian house in Rathfarnham, to use it as the recording studio for the album. However, much of the core of the record was actually recorded in Edge’s Melbeach house, in Monkstown, Co. Dublin, later in 1986.
5) The Sound of Success
“Outside it’s America,” Bono sings, in one of the most intense tracks on the album, ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’. Words were important to the power of The Joshua Tree, but the production by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois also put a heavy emphasis on sound. The Edge’s “Infinite Guitar” and his arpeggios in songs like ‘With or Without You’ and ‘Where the Streets Have No Name’ became a trademark. Rolling Stone magazine defined The Joshua Tree as the album that turned U2 “from heroes to superstars.” It was, after all, a great noise.