The mantle of leadership can be a destructive force in rock. Remember all the worthy singer-songwriters who crumbled under “new Dylan” proclamations in the ’70s, or how quickly the Clash disintegrated on the 1982 Who tour when observers began describing their appearances together as a passing of the torch from one generation in rock to another?

It’s no wonder U2 has protective instincts. After a triumphant tour in connection with its stirring but inconsistent “War” album in 1983, the Irish quartet was hailed as the real Who of the ’80s: a socially conscious band with the invigorating and inspiring qualities required to serve as the voice of its age. But in its follow-up album, 1984’s “The Unforgettable Fire,” U2 didn’t try to claim the crown.

Rather than build upon the easily grasped slogans and other rallying points of “War,” the band returned in “Fire” in a more tentative and reflective mood. If records like Presley’s “Sun Sessions” and Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” enable you to sit in on the birth of new ages in rock, “Fire” was, in retrospect, a fascinating glimpse of a band examining its own role.

The hints of future greatness were present in the rousing “Pride” — a summary of U2’s social and spiritual ideals — and in the moody “Bad” — a more introspective look at human frailty. Beyond those tunes, however, “Fire” consisted mostly of sketches rather than songs.

In “The Joshua Tree,” U2 fills in the sketches with sometimes breathtaking signs of growth. The music — provided by guitarist-keyboardist Dave Evans (The Edge), bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen — is more tailored and assured as it expands on the moody textures of songs like “Bad” and reaches out with great effect for new, bluesy touches.

Bono Hewson’s lyrics are also more consistently focused and eloquently designed than in past albums, and his singing underscores the band’s expressions of disillusionment and hope with new-found power and passion. The songs are about faith, but – as suggested by such titles as “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Searching For” — they aren’t tidy statements of rejoicing.

Biblical images abound — from the album title to lines like “In the locust wind comes a rattle and hum / Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome” — but there isn’t the relentless dogma that many rock observers found offensive in Dylan’s “Slow Train Coming.” These are human tales of reaching for your ideals while battling against moments of doubt and despair: drug addiction (“Running to Stand Still”), the death of a friend (“One Tree Hill”), government terrorism (“Mothers of the Disappeared”) and social injustice (“Red Hill Mining Town”).

While U2 songs frequently comment on external forces (as in an Irishman’s perspective on the contradictions in American society), the heart of the LP is concerned with individual resolve. In the LP’s opening lines, Hewson describes the inner battle to maintain faith and ideals: “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.”

In a time when the rock ‘n’ roll world feasts on the banality of such acts as Bon Jovi, “The Joshua Tree” is asking more of mainstream audiences than any pop-rock album since Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska.” But the band presents its case in such majestic, heartfelt and accessible terms that it is unlikely to encounter the radio or consumer resistance met by that stark LP. Indeed, “The Joshua Tree” finally confirms on record what this band has been slowly asserting for three years now on stage: U2 is what the Rolling Stones ceased being years ago — the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world. In this album, the band wears that mantle securely.

Source: Los Angeles Times/ Robert Hilburn

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