Review: John McCready, NME Mar 1987
Two years have passed since U2 delivered ‘The Unforgettable Fire’ – a holy history book read under a storm cloud of world tension; borne of a burning, biblical and intensely personal faith.
‘The Unforgettable Fire’ was also a record about America. ‘The Joshua Tree’ is another about America – a wide open space stretched by Anton Corbjin’s camera where power and money hide in the city while the wide open spaces of red rock and heart and dust push you back inside yourself. U2 are travelling through a godless land, as old as the hills, always outsiders trapped by fame and wealth, always on the road or a rail to somewhere else.
‘The Joshua Tree’ is shot though with yarning and despair. U2 arrived long ago. Their success makes them nationless, despite their Irish roots. And America is big. Big enough to make even U2 seem insignificant. It’s a vastness that fascinates them…
The record floats to the foreground on a wave of digital holiness which turns out to be the only real intrusion by producer Brian Eno. Like ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, ‘The Joshua Tree’ starts by spitting furiously. Bono cries without weeping, breathing and bleeding himself into ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’. The guitar becomes something more than an endlessly abused piece of wood. The last ten seconds are breathtakingly beautiful.
‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ is less frenzied. It revolves slowly. The words are simple. Yet the sense that U2 care, that they are not fucking around, makes them special. Bono sings: ‘I believe in the Kingdom Come / Then all the colours will bleed into one / But, yes, I’m still running’.
‘With Or Without You’ is both musically and lyrically more familiar. The tune harks back to ‘October’. A cumulative roar brings things to a close. ‘With or Without You’ is some kind of love song.
‘Bullet The Blue Sky’ faces an America of destruction and hatred. It is as black as hell might be. There are images of burning crosses, dollar bills and fighter planes over mud huts where children sleep. The music swells. Restlessly. Angrily. The guitar is compressed, held back and then unleashed. At exactly the right moment. The drums are loud and rough, like they were recorded in your bathroom. U2 fear America. They are angry with a country gun-happy at home and abroad, a country riddled with corruption. And yet they are fascinated. They can’t turn their eyes away from it.
‘Running To Stand Still’ completes the first side like a gradual cooling of the previous song. It refers back to what’s gone before and forewarns of what will come. It’s this sense of integration that makes the record so complete. ‘The Joshua Tree’ is not something which can be easily pulled apart.
‘Red Hill Mining Town’ is about Britain’s coal strike. It’s about how people draw together, look to their families to survive in a careless and heartless state. I know this because I was told. But still it evokes America – ‘A Red Hill town where the lights go down’.
From here on, there is no relief. The America of ‘The Joshua Tree’ gets bigger and emptier. Bono seems on the verge of some visionary breakdown. And yet there is always that sense of strength which, time after time, helps U2 turn despair into a positive force. The words draw on the elements. Fire and rain and desert. The sounds that rise and fall around them seem reluctant to roar.
Bullets fly through Bono’s blue sky. On ‘Exit’ he sings of someone at the end of his tether; ‘He used to stay awake to drive the dreams ha had away’. ‘Exit’ walks into the black: ‘He saw that the hands that build could also pull down….’.
‘Mothers Of The Disappeared’ closes the record – a bleakly supportive note to those whose sons and daughters get taken away in the night. The last line printed on the sleeve is not sung: ‘Join Amnesty International’. Silence follows.
‘The Joshua Tree’ will prove a better and braver record than anything else that’s likely to appear in 1987. It’s the sound of people confronting their own ghosts in a country where they can if they wish become a dusty speck on the landscape. It’s the sound of people still trying, still looking, when all the world wants from them is volume and fireworks. U2 have long since dispensed with such things.