Slowly, though not particularly quietly, Ireland’s U2 has evolved into one of the most popular rock bands in the world and, some think, the best. With his charismatic presence, uplifting vocals and socially conscious songs, Bono Hewson is sometimes perceived as a Celtic Bruce Springsteen, an association more convenient than correct. Still, both are adherents of the new rock sobriety, masters of the epic song and inspirational gesture, and U2’s “Pride (In the Name of Love)” and “Sunday Bloody Sunday” are humanist anthems that transform crowds into rallies reflecting not only the communal instincts of rock but also the idealism of many in its youthful constituency.
“The Joshua Tree” (Island 90581) is U2’s first studio album since 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire” and much of it expands on the fearful fascination with America that’s been evident since its “October” album in 1983. The group is still “Wide Awake in America” (the title of its live EP), absorbed in its vastness and power and disturbed by its contradictions, both physical and spiritual. Yet even though this promised land can prove a land of emptiness and disillusion, U2 clings to the possibility of hope and redemption. Hence the album’s name: The Joshua tree is a giant cactus that grows only in the harsh desert wastelands of the Southwest. It’s a potent symbol of the affirmation that courses through U2’s music.
Bono has long been obsessed with borders, not just political, but personal and spiritual as well. The opening cut, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” is a bit oblique lyrically, but the implications are clear in Bono’s resolute delivery, Dave (The Edge) Evan’s quavering guitar, Adam Clayton’s cathedral bass and Larry Mullen’s rolling thunder drums. Bono’s first lines offer a credo born out of confusion: “I want to run, I want to hide/ I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside/ I want to reach out and touch the flame/ where the streets have no name.”
Bono’s spiritual concerns — he’s an avowed Christian more into the mystic than the dogmatic — come through on the yearning “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which suggests that faith is a beginning, not an end. “I believe in the Kingdom Come/ then all the colors will bleed into one/ but yes I’m still running/ You broke the bonds, you loosed the chains/ you carried the cross of my shame/ you know I believe it/ but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” “With or Without You,” ostensibly a love song with an acid undercurrent, but just as easily about the moral complications of faith, builds from a whisper to a freight-train yowl at the end. In the past year Bono discovered the American country and blues idioms and his fascination is evident.
The most powerful and provocative song on the album, “Bullet the Blue Sky” is genuinely disturbing — rough, distorted and fueled by an apocalyptic Edge solo that spews jagged shards of feedback-driven guitar before descending to a bleak ending, part talking blues, part Ginsberg howl. It’s the harshest of four songs on America, and includes some caustic commentary on might-as-right and money-as-power: “In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum/ Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome,” Bono rasps. “Plant a demon seed, you raise a flower of fire/ See them burning crosses, see the flames, higher and higher.”
The first side of the album ends with “Running to Stand Still,” a bluesy Ry Coorderish guitar and piano evocation, country-gospel simple and almost pastoral until you realize Bono’s talking about the dead end of heroin addiction.
Side 2 opens with “Red Hill Mining Town,” inspired by England’s mining struggle. a catalogue of destruction (“we scorch the earth/ set fire to the sky/ stoop so low to reach so high”) and vindication (“We’re wounded by fear/ injured in doubt/ I can lose myself/ You I can’t live without/ Because you keep me holding on.”
The next three songs “In God’s Country,” “Trip Through Your Wires” and “Exit” are metaphorically ambivalent, with “Trip” a somewhat ungainly romp in blues structure. Hill” is a pop pavane for Greg Carroll, a U2 roadie killed in a motorcycle accident last year (“your sun so bright it leaves no shadows, only scars carved into stone on the face of the earth”). But it also makes clear the band’s contention that music can, and should, act as a catalyst for change: “In our world a heart of darkness, a fire zone/ where poets speak their hearts/ then bleed for it/ Jara sang, his song a weapon, in the hands of love …”
The album ends with “Mothers of the Disappeared,” reflecting not only U2’s ongoing commitment to Amnesty International (there are addresses for the organization at the end of the album’s lyric sheet), but also Bono’s travels in Nicaragua and El Salvador. It is a simple lament of great beauty and sadness pleading for the realization that ideological battles about right and left obscure the more important issue of right and wrong.
So “Joshua Tree” is another bracing encounter with U2. Producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois (with the band’s original producer Steve Lillywhite mixing three songs) have done a excellent job of capturing the band’s live sound. Despite Bono’s searing vocals and spotlit charisma, U2 is a great band, with a clearly identifiable sound. If earlier U2 albums sometimes seemed to emphasize sound and texture over song, a promising new balance is established here.
U2’s world tour, which kicks off next month, is shaping up as the big rock tour of the year. Will “The Joshua Tree” break U2 through to a wider mainstream audience as “Born in the USA” did for Springsteen? Chances are the answer is yes. Despite the absence of clear-cut anthems like “Pride,” U2’s personal, spiritual and political idealism is quite clear and ultimately inspiring. It is a Joshua tree in the wasteland of rock.
Washington Post/ Richard Harrington
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