All too often, the anticipation of an event is far greater than it’s arrival, as great expectations are built up beyond the point of reality.
Since U2 began work on their fifth studio album over one year ago, public demand placed on the band the Herculean task of producing an album that would satisfy all and disappoint none.
The fruit of their labours is ready to spring forth as ‘The Joshua Tree’. And far from being an anti-climax, this album is destined to renew and reaffirm faith, to confound and to intrigue, to placate and aggravate. In short, ‘The Joshua Tree’ is the same, only very, very different.
Unlike the airy, European feel of ‘The Unforgettable Fire’, this album looks to the West, and has placed it’s roots in the heartlands of America.
This however, is not a surface-skimming excursion along the Manhattan skyline; instead ‘The Joshua Tree’ represents an uncompromising and often bleak exploration into the psyche of the land. In this album, U2 follow paths somewhat reminiscent of those carved by Springsteen’s ‘Nebraska’ period.
The American influence does not confine itself simply to the music, but also extends to some of the lyrics. However, far from being a tribute to the star-spangled banner, the words highlight the political untruths and ambiguities which exist within the US ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ and ‘Bullet the Blue Sky’ both take a hard look at the American involvement in South America (‘And I can see the fighter planes across the mud huts as the children sleep. Bullet the Blue Sky’).
Also, ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ deals with desperation of a small town mining family. Once again, U2 have proved that nothing about their can be taken for granted.
Yet, songwise, ‘The Joshua Tree’ is U2’s most accessible to date. Tracks such as ‘With or Without You’, and the gospel number, ‘I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For’ indicate that the band can produce highly commercial material without falling into the traps of rock and roll cliché.
There is a stronger emphasis on the songs themselves, with each track both complimenting the other and standing by itself.
The lyrics are perhaps the best yet produced by the band, with much of the imagery taken from nature, and symbols and paradoxes woven in multiple layers into every line: (‘You got to cry without weeping/ talk without speaking/ scream without raising your voice’: Running To Stand Still’). (I stand with sons of Cain. Burned by the fire of love’: ‘In God’s Country’).
All lyrics however, are meaningless until give a voice, and on ‘The Joshua Tree’, Bono’s vocals breathe fire and passion into the songs.
For in the new album, there is a new, unexpected mood of aggression and power. The guitar of the Edge dominates and pervades every corner of the album, echoing the inner tensions of the songs with a climatic, unremitting wall of sound.
Unlike the spiritual mood of their previous album, ‘The Unforgettable Fire,’ there is a sense of directness and starkness on ‘The Joshua Tree,’ as of the production policy was one of non-interference. There is the distinct feeling of direct sound coming straight from four guys in a room, rather than via a bank of mixing desks.
There is a definite anticipation that these tracks will effortlessly translate onto the stage of massive, sound-filled arenas, and will grow and expand, rather than diminish in space.
The subtleties of this album are such that a first listening produces a welter of confusions that appear to collide off each other, rather than fit neatly into place.
Contrasts such as the spiritual, almost pantheistic mood of ‘One Tree Hill’ (which is dedicated to the memory of their Maori roadie Greg Carroll who was killed in an accident last summer) and the heavy psychedelic guitar on ‘Exit’ require several hearings before the album begins to coalesce.
‘The Joshua Tree’ is definitely a ‘grower.’ The album takes root in the barren and often sterile world of rock music, and grows upwards and outwards with a spirit of independence.
Within the arms of America. U2 have produced something new and spectacular in a world often buried by cliché and stereotyping.
‘The Joshua Tree’ is still U2, But a U2 of altered moods, ideals and expectations. Although the band explore through song, rather than by wagon trail, ‘The Joshua Tree’ is an example of pioneering to be proud of.
Sunday Independent/Lisa Hand
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