Once upon a time in long ago 1986, U2 stood on the precipice of international acclaim. The band had scored solid critical praise for their prior albums “War” and “The Unforgettable Fire” and had amassed a rabidly faithful fan base. Their ground breaking legendary performance at Live Aid the year before had set the table for something monumental. The band at that time was included within a pack of singularly gifted young groups like Simple Minds, The Waterboys, and INXS, all of which were waiting for their close up with fame. The release of the superlative “The Joshua Tree” would dramatically change U2’s status in the rock hierarchy as they would capture the world’s attention with this masterpiece recording.
“The Joshua Tree” was the band’s fifth album and was recorded at a time of inner turmoil for Bono and the other members of the band. They had caught a glimpse of the downside of fame and the unmooring affects their building success had on their private lives. Bono and his wife Ali had struggled their way through a real rough patch in their young marriage and Edge also struggled with handling his fledgling renown and how that was impacted his young family.
For “The Joshua Tree” U2 would again tap Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois to produce. The majority of the release would be recorded in Dublin at Windmill Studios and Danesmoate Manor. Unless you have been in a coma for the last thirty years you are aware of what followed upon the release of the album; the stratospheric assent of the band into superstardom. “The Joshua Tree” established U2’s legendary reputation. It went number one in both the UK and US selling 25 million records and counting. It was nominated for four Grammys in 1988 winning two, one of which was the biggest prize Album of the Year. “The Joshua Tree” is the point at which U2 became the biggest musical act in the world. No matter what the current opinion of the band’s latest works and decisions The Joshua Tree is an album worthy of celebration.
For those not present 30 years ago it is no hyperbole to state this album was epic and gargantuan. The release was the culmination of all the things the band had worked so hard to accomplish and they did it their way with integrity. It is safe to state there will probably never again be another band who will completely dominate the music world in the same way. In the music business today would any record label have the patience to wait till a band’s fifth album for them to capture the general public’s imagination? That occurrence was rare at the time and unlikely now. For fans that had been following the band since their early days the speed of the metamorphosis from moderate success to mega super stardom was heady. It wasn’t overnight success but it sure felt like it. I can personally attest to the thrill of seeing them go from the arena circuit in the spring of 1987 and by the fall witnessing U2 sellout huge stadiums. Live the visuals and lighting were basic and simple, having not yet caught up with the new success the band was acquired. I now look back and cherish the innocence of the band and their ebullient enthusiasm. That essence is what is captured like amber not only on the original release but on the 30th Anniversary edition of the album.
The 30th anniversary re release of “The Joshua Tree” holds a treasure trove of additional features that highlight the development and events of the juggernaut that was the album’s reception and tour. The original album which was remastered in 2007 is offered. The extras include a live recording of “The Joshua Tree” tour captured at Madison Square Garden in 1987. The disc not only includes songs from the album but live tracks from their prior albums; “Boy, October, War and The Unforgettable Fire” as they were performed in the setlist. The third disk is six remixes from collaborators like St. Francis Hotel, Jackknife Lee, Flood, oft utilized producers Daniel Lanois and Steve Lillywhite. The final disk in the set is comprised of fifteen songs that were created in and around “The Joshua Tree” recording, with b sides and outtakes. The third and fourth discs are a special treat for the devoted fans of the band. Additionally in the reissue is an 84 pg hardback book including prior unseen personal photography by Edge. This photography was taken during the iconic photo session for the cover. The anniversary edition is a thoroughly fleshed out presentation of the album.
In reviewing the latest offering I am going to briefly touch on the original recording remastered in 2007. The original release is impressive and critics who say otherwise are being disingenuous. The first three songs alone are jaw droppingly brilliant. “Where the Streets Have No Name” has to be one of the best album openers of all time with it’s goosebump producing guitar and drums that are best described as Larry Mullen channeling the hammer of the gods. Throughout the release is found a spectacular blend of ebullience, contemplation, anger and compassion. There is little that could be improved and it is a masterpiece. The deeper tracks like “Trip Through Your Wires and In God’s Country” are excellent and only gain in impact over time.
The enclosed live disc captures why U2 aficionados are willing to go to great lengths to experience the magic that is a live U2 show. The new release offers a fantastic insight into the electricity of the band in live performance. The impact of the songs from The Joshua Tree is stunning and timeless and on full display on this disc.
The third disc is comprised of six remixes of tracks from the original release. Before I go any farther let me state, I am usually not a fan of remixes so bear that in mind. I find the remix disc a bit uneven. I think it is a difficult task for any producer to re approach musical works that are so iconic in fans memories. I don’t think any of the remixes stellar as most are would have worked better than the originals, but they do present another point of view which for the dedicated fan of U2 is worth the listen. The six remix subjects are; “ One Tree Hill, Bullet In the Blue Sky, Running to Stand Still, Red Hill Mining Town, With or Without You and Where the Streets Have no Name”. The stand out is “Running to Stand Still” with Daniel Lanois giving the original a run for its money. “One Tree Hill and Bullet In the Blue Sky” also are very impressive and original in their resulting output. Steve Lillywhite does a great job on “Red Hill Mining Town”. Unfortunately I could not cotton to the remixes of “With or Without You or Where the Streets Have no Name”. It is probably a case of the two songs having been so perfect the first time any different version would be doomed by comparison. On both songs I find the power of the band and Bono’s emotion gets lost in the exercise. The remix disc is of interest but probably only for followers of the various producers or hardcore U2 fans. The new deluxe package would lose nothing if these remixes were not included and might even be a bit of a drawback.
The fourth disc is where I concentrated my attention. There are a number of songs many avid fans will recognize. Some have been released on best of albums and small EPs; others are outtakes and studio experiments. It is convenient to now have them gathered altogether in one place. The 15 songs included range from the magnificent Silver and Gold to outtakes like “Desert of our Love”. “Silver and Gold” has two versions on offer. I prefer the better known version which is probably one of the most evocative political protest songs written and a sibling to “Bullet in the Blue Sky”. The earnestness of “Luminous Times, Walk to the Water” and “Deep in the Heart” is palpable. For me the outtakes are the most revealing with the winner being “Wave of Sorrow” with its amalgam of Old Testament narrative influences. This song could have easily felt at home on the album “No Line on the Horizon”. Another rarity is “Rise Up” a captivating track finally released from the U2 vault. Other songs included on the disc are tracks that seem to be laying down sonic markers for future albums and attempts at other stylings. “Desert of Our Love” sounds like The Talking Heads circa “Little Creatures” and places you in a fly on the wall position as the band spit balls its creation.
“Beautiful Ghost” and “Race Against Time” are surprisingly far removed from the sonic motif of “The Joshua Tree” making them all the more interesting. Both are experimental and “Beautiful Ghost” is reminiscent of the song “Promenade” off of “The Unforgettable Fire”. “Race Against Time” seeming like a precursor to the work on “Zooropa”. “Spanish Eyes and Sweetest Thing”, are songs that stem from Bono and his wife Ali’s relationship; one a heavy thumping straight out rocker and the other a lovely confection that was an apology to her for his inattention. The last song on this disc ‘Drunk Chicken” is a bit of a head scratcher but does act as an omen for the stimulus overload experience that would arrive with “Achtung Baby and Zooropa”. The fourth disc is probably not for the casual acquaintance fan but for the avid fan that savors a look into the inner workings of the band’s creative process. It is the course material for the post grad degree in U2.
There seems to be no end to the argument about where U2 are currently in their career. Presently it is very popular to scorn and be snarky about U2. Their once sterling career has been tarnished by some unforced errors. However many of the biggest scoffers of the band are simply dogpiling on current popular opinion; unwilling to give the band credit for their numerous accomplishments. However any critic or true music fan who does not appreciate the mastery and impact of “The Joshua Tree” is simply not being honest with themselves or others. The album has had untold impact on the popular music scene for thirty years. Whatever the consensus on the recent offerings from the band, “The Joshua Tree” deserves respect for what it was and has come to signify.
There are some fans and many armchair critics who might not agree with U2 re touring “The Joshua Tree” or other managerial decisions of late, but never forget the majesty of this album. Cut away all the surrounding cacophony and distraction and you are left with a simply genius recording. The Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary Edition is a must for U2 fans and worthy of consideration for those interested in understanding what U2 is all about. This release displays how U2 became the band other bands have been weighed against for decades.