However you feel about U2, there's really no denying the first three singles off The Joshua Tree. They also happen to be the first three tracks on the album, an '80s cultural touchstone released 30 years ago today (March 9, 1987). The songs are similar in many ways -- earnest, yearning, shaped by modern guitar effects and ancient parabolic language -- and their titles could almost be squeezed together to make a little story.
The songs, of course, are "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and "With or Without You." When they exploded onto radio and MTV, they signaled the defining moment for the decade's definitive band. The Joshua Tree is peak U2 -- Bono, Edge, Larry, and Adam becoming the superhero cowboy rock 'n' roll prophets they've been measured against ever since. (The album spawned two No. 1 singles and became the group's first of seven chart-topping LPs in America.)
They reacted against The Joshua Tree with 1991's Achtung Baby and their subsequent '90s electronic experiments, then tried to recreate it with 2000's All That You Can't Leave Behind. This spring and summer, they'll just play the darn thing in full on a 30th anniversary tour that sold 1.1 million tickets in 24 hours.
The Joshua Tree was a culmination of everything the Irish foursome had been working toward since the late '70s. Pre-Tree, U2 had enjoyed considerable success in the United States, particularly as a live act. As their spiky post-punk grew artsier and more arena-worthy, the onetime Joy Division super fans became increasingly fascinated with America. The resulting mix of European and Yankee sensibilities fertilized The Joshua Tree. With the help of producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, U2 filtered the shimmery sonics of 1984's The Unforgettable Fire through a prism of blues, gospel, and whatever Norman Mailer and Raymond Carver books Bono and the boys were reading at the time.
U2 wasn't the first band of its approximate generation from across the pond to try such a thing. The Clash indulged their love of rockabilly and vintage R&B on 1979's brilliant London Calling, for example. And wonderfully coiffed Welsh rockers The Alarm achieved a kind of punky Americana on 1984's Declaration. The Joshua Tree is something different, though. Outside of the piano and harmonica on "Running to Stand Still and "Tripping Through Your Wires," there aren't a lot of direct nods to roots music. Instead, U2 draws inspiration from the very idea of America -- the freedom, the open spaces, the promises that don't always come true.
More so than the The Unforgettable Fire -- the first taste of what Eno and Lanois could do for the group -- The Joshua Tree feels native to no real-world country. It's a postcard from some rugged country where men wear black vests and cowboy hats and everyone talks like village mystics.
The album is heavily front-loaded, but beyond that opening triptych of timeless radio staples, The Joshua Tree is mostly filler-free and packed with everything people love or hate about U2. For starters, it's got three of their best political songs. "Red Hill Mining Town" is a coal-fired rocker about hanging on to hope during the 1984 British miners strike. "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Mothers of the Disappeared" deal with the El Salvadoran death squads supported by America under President Reagan. None of those three songs mention specific places or politicians, and that speaks to another U2 hallmark: Their ability to make anything sound universal.
It's not just Bono's vague lyrics -- it's the certainty with which he sings them, and the band's willingness (if not compulsion) to go big. In the Classic Albums episode devoted to The Joshua Tree, both Bono and Eno make a point of saying how uncool U2 was in 1987. Not being the Replacements or the Jesus and Mary Chain freed them up to put forth a "highness," in Bono's words, that people still associate with the band, even though they've never quite come back to the glistening grandeur heard here.
The majestic sound they hit upon with Eno and Lanois elevates even lesser album cuts into the stratosphere. "In God's Country," Bono's RFP for new political ideas, and "One Tree Hill," a tribute to a fallen friend and the New Zealand country he loved, capture the spirit of The Joshua Tree as well as anything on the album. That should come across this spring, as U2 gives both rarely played gems some rightful airings.
By any other "big music" band in the '80s, either song would've been a massive single. On The Joshua Tree, they're scenic diversions on the greater journey to the spiritual place U2 is always trying to reach. And when they go there, they go there with you.