The Joshua Tree opens with the 'holy trinity', three of the greatest and most famous songs ever recorded. The opening organ of Where The Streets Have No Name washes out from the speakers and as the guitar begins, the imagination is captured by what is the best song ever made. This song is majestic, it is musical genius, it is brilliance, it is epic, it is anthemic, it is everything a song should be. There is no praise high enough for a song of such rich depth and beauty. This song is so broad, so epic, and full of such sweeping grandeur that it can reach Heaven, come down to the nameless streets of Ethiopia and the divided streets of Belfast, and travel just about anywhere in between. The power of Streets is most adequately shown in the live format, where it is the one song that you can guarantee U2 will play - there is nothing on earth like a live performance of Streets, with the venue washing red and the crowd jumping in unison to the intro. It is for some a life-changing moment, for others a spiritual experience, and for many the very epitome of live U2. Streets tears down the walls, it reaches out and touches the flame high on desert plain, and it takes you where there is no sorrow and no shame, where the streets have no name.
But Streets is just the first third of The Joshua Tree's holy trinity. Next is the ringing guitar and rich singing of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, a song with some beautiful, searching lyrics, longing for the heaven that some feel is described in Streets. It wanders, but with purpose and direction, striving for something higher, something sacred, acknowledging the truth and affirming that it's never enough, not a substitute for the heights we won't reach in this life. And then the album slips into an intensely personal mode through With Or Without You, a song that some, like myself, see in a religious context, as a conversation perhaps between the Father and Jesus, or between a struggling believer and God, while others find an extremely powerful personal context through which to relate to a song that doubtfully has a fixed meaning. With Or Without You is universal U2 at its best, demonstrating the power of creating a song that many people can take and apply to their own lives without sacrificing the song's value.
With track four, Bullet The Blue Sky, political U2 comes out with all guns blazing, decrying the Reagan administration for its actions in Central America - but ultimately, this song has come to be a rallying point for many causes, most notably an attack on the apathetic US and Western Europe during the height of the Bosnian crisis. America, where the fuck are you? United Kingdom, fuck you! Fuck you, France! Fuck you, Germany! ranted an irate Bono during the song on 12 August 1993, London, and that is a not-so-subtle summary of the political fury in the song, a fury that often went over the heads of many. The two greatest aspects of Bullet, however, are not lyrical but musical: the first is how it became one of U2's most aggressively rocking songs in its brilliant and complete reinvention for the ZooTV Tour, and the second is how perfectly this furious number segues into the next track, Running To Stand Still. It's something I doubt any other band could do, to exercise the control to go from the anger of Bullet straight into the subtle pain and desperation of Running To Stand Still night after night in concert. And yet U2 did it - Edge sat down at his piano, or on ZooTV played a beautiful version on guitar, while Larry and Adam cohesively created the rhythm over which Bono sung the mournful lyrics lamenting heroin addiction, a terrible scourge that left many not just in Ireland running to stand still. The addict of the song could see the seven towers of disastrous urban development in Dublin that condemned many to lives of poverty-stricken addiction, and could only see one way out, heroin, and for this, he cried without weeping, talked without speaking, screamed without raising his voice, took the poison from the poison stream, and floated out of here.
Political U2 continued to flow through the next two tracks. Red Hill Mining Town was inspired by the 1984 British miner's strikes but takes on a much broader, universal focus like much of U2's music, flowing with poetic and eloquent lyrics while highlighting the desperation to avert failure, "I'm hanging on, you're all that's left to hold on to". In God's Country, even moreso than Bullet The Blue Sky, is a subtle but scathing attack on political America, a place of "sad eyes and crooked crosses" that "need[s] new dreams tonight". The song has some fast-paced and wonderfully enjoyable guitar by Edge, and interestingly enough, Larry doesn't hit the cymbals once. Following the criticisms of In God's Country is Trip Through Your Wires, a song rich with the influence of music that U2 had heard and enjoyed on their travels through the US. The transition between In God's Country and Trip Through Your Wires highlights a working title The Joshua Tree had, The Two Americas, going from the political America that Bono dislikes, most notably for its lack of generosity towards the world's poor, to the people and music of America that Bono unashamedly loves.
The ninth track on The Joshua Tree is, besides Streets, the most notable song on the entire album for me. One Tree Hill is not only the first song to ever bring me to tears, but the unbelieveable, brilliant, and awe inspiring performance on 26 December 1989 is the best live performance of any song by any band ever, with Edge's spontaneous solo and Bono's improvised additional verse simply superb. This song is dedicated to Greg Carroll, an earnest and hard-working member of U2's road crew who the band met and hired during their tour of New Zealand in 1984. He quickly became a close friend of Bono, and in Dublin in 1986, he borrowed Bono's motorcycle to run an errand on a wet night - and never returned. He was hit by a drunk driver running a red light and was dead before he hit the ground. In one of the most stunningly poetic songs that Bono has ever penned, he combined Maori mythology and Christian beliefs to create a song that cultimates in the mournful lines:
And when it's raining, raining hard
That's when the rain will break my heart
With that and the continuing desperate cries of "raining, raining in your heart", I couldn't help but shed tears. Besides the emotion in the song, maybe it's also the connection to New Zealand that causes me to feel so strongly towards this song, or maybe the other Kiwis reading this can tell me I'm totally mad. Whatever way, this song leaves me speechless with its sorrowful brilliance.
The tenth song on The Joshua Tree is, in Bono's own words, a story about a religious man who became a very dangerous man when he misunderstood the meaning and the message of the hands of love. Exit is a dark, rumbling track, brooding with a forbidding atmosphere that captures the mind of a madman - is he committing murder or suicide, is he committing it for religion or passion, and does he even know? In the live setting, the darkness of this song was even more truly illustrated, with a sense of doom permeating through the bleak rock of the song. Misguided fundamentalism never felt so scary.
The Joshua Tree began with the three songs known to fans as the holy trinity and comes to a conclusion with what Edge has termed the suite of death, One Tree Hill, Exit, and lastly Mothers Of The Disappeared. This song was inspired by events in Central and South America, where many thousands of people were kidnapped by military regimes. They have never been accounted for, they have simply vanished from the planet, and their mothers have been left with no closure, not even a body to lay to rest. The anguish and misery of the mothers is so vividly portrayed in this song that you can feel it - the longing for the return of their children is just about tangible. And with that call for conclusion, the album aptly reaches its conclusion - a long journey of thoughts, politics, emotions, and realities comes to its end, ready to be realised again and again on repeated listens that serve to show even more of the depth of this rich album.
Eighteen years on, The Joshua Tree lives on as one of the finest works of music ever recorded. To close, I would like to offer in tribute a verse of With Or Without You that doesn't appear on the album, only live. It seems fitting:
We'll shine like stars in the summer night
We'll shine like stars in the winter night
One heart, one hope, one love ...
Phew. Did anyone actually read all of that?