Sound Off

Why U2's The Joshua Tree Is Overrated

U2 has announced its 2017 touring plans, which include a celebration of the 30th anniversary of the band's album The Joshua Tree. The group will play the album in its entirety for a handful of dates in the United States and Europe beginning in May. And no, the tour isn't stopping in Phoenix. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Fans of U2, The Joshua Tree is overrated.

To clarify, the quartet's best-selling album is not a weak record. It's far from their worst. But despite its enduring popularity since its release 28 years ago, it simply doesn't hold up when compared to the rest of the band's catalog.

The 11 tracks on that album have cemented who they are to the listeners of American classic rock radio. The Irish band was inspired by its love/hate relationship with the United States, and songs like "In God's Country" and "Where The Streets Have No Name" resonated with an American public in search of anthems and inspiration toward the end of the Reagan era.

Twenty-five million records sold proved that Bono and his band of merry Irishmen had become something more than alumni of the early '80s post-punk era. The Joshua Tree, with rousing bombastic singles, would catapult them into arena-band status. The problem with those anthems is that they all sound the same. For all the tricks and effects that guitarist The Edge has up his sleeve, the delay effect he often uses to create the ringing guitar riff that makes "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" such a beautiful and poetic song is employed on almost every other track on the album. As "With or Without You" builds steam in the chorus, he somehow makes five notes sound like 25 because of numerous experiments he's conducted on the many guitars in his arsenal through the years.

The variety of song styles used on The Unforgettable Fire, the first of many albums the band would make with musical masterminds Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno (including The Joshua Tree), makes for a more memorable beginning. The album starts with the stylish track "A Sort Of Homecoming," which utilizes a kinetic bass line from Adam Clayton that provides movement in what could have been a stale, ambient opener. It's the perfect warmup to the stirring tribute to Martin Luther King "Pride (In The Name Of Love)." Then things move to a relentless pace on "Wire." The song crescendos to Bono screaming "Here's the rope/Now swing away." Those three songs aren't as rousing as their counterparts on The Joshua Tree, but they're more involving as they toy with the listener's idea of the structure of a song and an album as a whole.

When you compare The Edge's minimalist sound on The Joshua Tree to the rhythm-and-blues stylings he utilizes on Rattle and Hum's (and the band's) best single, "Desire," you realize how little effort was expended by a man who is considered to be one of the best guitarists in rock music today. He practically throws the delay technique away during the live rendition of The Joshua Tree's best song, "Bullet The Blue Sky," as Rattle and Hum almost draws to a close. Bono likes what The Edge is doing so much that he sings extra lines that weren't in the original version just to hear more of it.

Despite the many sociopolitical themes that U2 touches on in The Joshua Tree, you can literally hear the passion and heartbreak in Bono's voice as he croons "One" on the band's 1991 masterpiece, Achtung Baby. The band, which was struggling with what direction to go in after the backlash of The Joshua Tree and the poor box office performance of their pretentious concert film Rattle and Hum, were in danger of breaking up. It was the writing of this song that brought the four childhood friends back together. The album is held firmly together by a willingness to experiment with contemporary alternative styles such as industrial and dance. The Edge's riffs on "Mysterious Ways" are muscular and groovy. The effect the album has today is apparent in the well-received Jack White cover of "Love Is Blindness" included on the soundtrack to the film The Great Gatsby. Achtung Baby is so forward-thinking that even the late Steve Wiley singled the record out as a '90s album that still holds up despite his animosity toward The Joshua Tree.

Toward the end of the '90s, Bono and The Edge continued to take the band in a different and adventurous musical direction with the techno-influenced album Pop, and it failed miserably in the eyes of the public.

Their follow-up to that album, All That You Can't Leave Behind, went back to The Joshua Tree formula: anthems and riffs that would bring the fans running back. Songs like "Beautiful Day" and "Walk On" were the perfect background music for when Bono led yet another humanitarian mission in Africa dressed in a leather jacket and sunglasses while shaking hands with Nelson Mandela. It was simply comfort food to a public that had stuffed itself on boy bands and nu-metal. How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb continued in the same vein. The 2004 release began the corporate synergy U2 would have with Apple, only to have it blow up in their face in 2014 when the band couldn't even give their new music away.

The fact that U2 continues to retreat to their most popular but overrated piece of art to diminishing returns only proves the amount of faint praise is heaped on The Joshua Tree. As with
many other bands, it's the undervalued gems that are often the best examples of their output.

Editor's note: This articled originally published on May 12, 2015, and has been updated for publication on January 9, 2017.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jason Keil was the Phoenix New Times culture editor from August 2019 to May 2020.
Contact: Jason Keil

Latest Stories