Hope and Despair: Reexamining U2’s The Joshua Tree and Pop. March marks the 30th anniversary of U2’s ‘The Joshua Tree’ and 20th anniversary of ‘Pop.’ Our own Dave Dierksen delves into both albums political relevancy and respective legacies.
By David Dierksen
This month, two records by the rock and roll behemoth we call U2 celebrate landmark birthdays. The Joshua Tree, which turns 30 today, will get a proper celebration, being played in its entirety on an upcoming spring stadium tour. As well it should.
This here blog ranked it the best record of 1987 for good reason. It’s a work filled with powerful anthems that deliver hope even while painting portraits of longing and injustice. U2’s other birthday boy, Pop, which turned 20 on March 2 – well…it will be lucky if even one of its 12 tracks makes an appearance during the entirety of said stadium tour.
I don’t think you could come up with two more diametrically opposed records in U2’s career, not just sonically, but in fan and critical reception as well. One is a beloved classic. The other is treated like an attic-kept stepchild. Both, however, are worth discussing, not just because of an arbitrary anniversary date, and not just because both are worthy of celebration, but because I think both inhabit interesting spaces within the context of these strange times.
Starting with The Joshua Tree, it is U2’s belief that its songs have become relevant again given the current political climate, and it is for this reason – not nostalgia, mind you – that they are jumping on the very popular “album anniversary tour” bandwagon. From a Rolling Stone interview with The Edge:
“We then were looking at the anniversary of The Joshua Tree, and another thing started to dawn on us, which is that weirdly enough, things have kind of come full circle, if you want. That record was written in the mid-Eighties, during the Reagan-Thatcher era of British and U.S. politics. It was a period when there was a lot of unrest. Thatcher was in the throes of trying to put down the miners’ strike; there was all kinds of shenanigans going on in Central America. It feels like we’re right back there in a way.”
And then this: “We’ve never given ourselves the opportunity to celebrate our past because we’ve always as a band looked forward, but I think we felt that this was a special moment, and this was a very special record. So we’re happy to take this moment to regroup and think about an album that’s so many years old, but still seems relevant.”
The Edge further suggests that this tour is just a momentary stop-gap, a brief jaunt to celebrate the serendipitous (?) timing of the record’s 30th birthday coinciding with the beginning of the End of Days. Then they can get back to the business of finishing and touring the next record, assuming of course we haven’t reached the end of the End of Days by then.
On this supposed, current relevancy of The Joshua Tree – I don’t know. I was only 10 when The Joshua Tree was released and certainly not as in tune to the American political landscape as I am now. But it does seem to me that it’s a preeeeetty big stretch to tie the admittedly tumultuous mid-80s to the WHAT-THE-HOLY-HELL-IS-GOING-ON-IS-THIS-SOME-HORRIBLE-DREAM!!!! situation in which we now find ourselves.
And honestly, I kind of have to question how relevant to American politics The Joshua Tree was even in 1987. A lot has been made about how “AMERICA” inspired the record – about how they wanted to juxtapose the hopes and aspirations of the proverbial American Dream against the harsh realities facing American citizens under the rule of shady Powers That Were. And while I don’t doubt the band’s inspiration, that overarching theme never really comes across on record, at least lyrically.
Let’s break it down. You’ve got:
• Two seemingly apolitical love songs – “With or Without You” and “Trip Through Your Wires”.
• A dedication to the memory of a close friend of the band – “One Tree Hill”.
• A song about the search for spiritual completion – “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”.
• The serial killer song – “Exit”.
• A song about heroin addiction in Dublin – “Running to Stand Still”.
• A song inspired by the religious and economic segregation in Belfast – “Where the Streets Have No Name”.
• “Red Hill Mining Town” about the 1984 UK coal minders’ 1984 strike.
That’s eight songs I would argue don’t speak specifically to the America of 2017 or 1987. Sure, these songs are lyrically ambiguous enough to interpret and mold to American sentiments and situations, but that’s the listener’s connection to make, and today some of those connections might not gel with U2’s intentions. For example, take “Red Hill Mining Town.” The plight of the US coal miner was certainly a topic of conversation on last year’s campaign trail, and I have no doubt that the members of U2 would be sympathetic to the woes of this subset of Americans. But how sympathetic is U2’s audience to these coal miners who voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump?
Of the three songs I’ve yet to mention, only “In God’s Country” feels like it adheres to U2’s stated thesis, using the beauty and desolation of U.S. deserts as a metaphor for how they viewed our country back in 1987. “Mothers of the Disappeared” is really about atrocities committed in Central and South America, but given the U.S.’s involvement in those countries, you could maybe kinda sorta tie that to the U.S.’s shaky policies with those countries, both then and now.
And then finally, there’s “Bullet the Blue Sky,” a song so overtly political and critical of American culture, and yet still kind of vague, that it’s been used in live settings over the last 30 years to comment on a whole host of dodgy American policies.
In the end, as great as the songs on The Joshua Tree are, I don’t believe the whole of the sum of its parts supports The Edge when he says: “I don’t think any of our work has ever come full circle to that extent.”
That quote is particularly vexing because there is a body of work that is more relevant now than anything else in the U2 catalog, and yes, I’m talking about Pop. Not that Pop has come full circle because that would mean it resonated in 1997, and it most assuredly didn’t do that.
Pop was the proper follow-up to 1991’s amazing Achtung Baby.
SIDE NOTE: Yes, Zooropa came out in 1993, and yes, I consider it a proper U2 LP. However, given that it was written and recorded in a rush and originally intended to be an EP promoting the European leg of the tour supporting Achtung Baby, I don’t consider it a proper follow-up. It has some great songs and some weird-ass songs, but it will always be a bit of a random collection of outliers (see also: Beck’s Mutations, Radiohead’s My Iron Lung EP, and U2’s own Rattle and Hum).
Following up Achtung Baby, which itself was a monumentally successful follow-up to an already classic record, had to be quite daunting. Achtung Baby is U2’s best record, and it isn’t even close in my mind. I’ll save the track-by-track breakdown for a different thinkpiece, but the short version is Achtung isn’t just a collection of great songs, it was also sonically innovative, arriving at the forefront of the “alternative” music takeover. Music fans looking to jump ship from the tired sounds of the 80s could still hang with U2 because U2’s tastes were evolving too.
And though U2 was ahead of the curve, they never jumped too far ahead. They were embracing rock star imagery but not going too far into vapid douchebag territory. After all, Achtung Baby was released at the tail end of 12 years of Republican dominancy, and U2’s political leanings were front and center in rallying the 1992 youth vote. Folks could be forgiving of Bono the Fly as long as he was still skewering the bad guy politicians from the stage.
Pop, on the other hand, not only pushed the sonic experimentation too far ahead of its time, it seemed out of place in the cultural landscape of 1997, a decade removed from the 80s materialism it seemed to be critiquing and predating by a couple of years the resurgence of “pop” music as a monolith that still stands to this day. And if that had been its only violation, perhaps audiences would have been more forgiving.
But U2 decided to push toward two extremes, neither of which catered to what fans were looking for, so to speak, at the time. On the marketing side, with tongues lodged in stadium-sized cheeks, the band employed numerous over-the-top ironic devices, which included acting like pretentious d-bags in interviews, aping the Village People in a music video, and performing under a giant-sized LED McDonald’s arch. It was satire, of course, aimed at pop music’s supposed vacuousness and the ridiculousness of celebrity culture, but fans either didn’t get the joke or didn’t find it funny coming from a band who used to bleed earnestness all over its audience.
And then on the flip-side, it didn’t help that the record, deep down, is actually a real downer. There isn’t a song on there that doesn’t deal with longing, desperation, the need for a quick fix, and the unfulfilling substitutes we resort to in these vapid, celebrity-obsessed times.
The whole thing plays out like a glitzy coke party you see in the movies. Maybe it takes place at the Playboy Mansion. Maybe it takes place at fucking Mar-a-Lago. It starts off fun, with people dancing (“Discotheque”, featuring a killer The Edge riff). Over in the corner some creepy dude is trying to get laid (see if these lyrics from “Do You Feel Loved” remind you of anyone: With my fingers as you want them / With my nails under your hide / With my teeth at your back / And my tongue to tell you the sweetest lies).
Elsewhere, in an unoccupied room, some dude is getting laid (“If You Wear That Velvet Dress”). Another guest laments the corruption of his faith (“If God Will Send His Angels”). “Gone” and “Please” both speak of disillusionment with love. “Staring at the Sun” is beautiful until Bono’s creepy metaphors remind us of the lengths we go through to numb our pain. Even a banger like “Mofo” is a futile call for rock and roll to save one’s soul. The whole thing ends with the rousing “Wake Up Dead Man”, with the record’s most direct thesis statement: Jesus, Jesus help me / I’m alone in this world / And a fucked-up world it is too.
While I’m cognizant that at least some of my interpretations of these songs probably don’t line up with their actual meanings, I still can’t help but consider Pop a prescient, (black) mirror reflecting the state in which we find ourselves. I suspect if it were to arrive in stores today, especially given U2’s recent lackluster releases, critics would be falling all over themselves to praise it as both a timely cultural statement and a breath of fresh air musically.
Unfortunately, it was a record out of time. Fans have largely dismissed it, and even the band seems to disavow it, rarely playing anything from it on recent tours. As early as 2000, on the heels of the release of All That You Can’t Leave Behind, a common Bono refrain from the stage was that U2 was “reapplying for the job” of biggest rock band in the world, seemingly giving credence to the large fan belief that Pop was a misfire. Publications who praised the record upon release began to backtrack on their initial assessments in the 00s, all the while praising All That You Can’t Leave Behind as a glorious return to form.
SIDE NOTE: Can we talk for a sec about All That You Can’t Leave Behind? Let me preface this by saying that I think it’s a decent record, with five or six good to great tracks. And in terms of timeliness, it couldn’t have been more perfect for U2. Fans who had balked at the cynicism of Pop were again soothed by the ”Kumbaya”-buck-up-little-camper tone that pervades the whole record. “Beautiful Day”; “Elevation”; “Walk On”; “Peace on Earth”; “Grace.” Are those song titles or chapters in a self-help book? And for all of the benefits it bestowed upon U2 at the time, how dated does that record sound now thematically? It was released on October 30, 2000, a week before the Bush/Gore election debacle and a year prior to 9/11 and the resulting wars. Listening to it after eight years of Bush, another eight years of Republican obstructionism, and now as we enter into the surreal hellscape of Trumpism, I think it’s fair to say that ATYCLB is a quaint anachronism. Stuck in a moment we can’t get out of? No fucking shit, Bono.
All of this is a real bummer because Pop is a fantastic record, epic in its journey, full of hooks and anthemic choruses you expect from a U2 record, while using electronic samples and loops to push their sound forward in interesting ways. They were essentially doing what Radiohead was doing at the same time, but Radiohead at the time wasn’t the biggest damn band in the world (and Radiohead had the added benefit of being pretty freakin’ dour right out of the gate).
SIDE NOTE: Remove Bono’s vocals from Pop’s “Miami” and replace them with Thom Yorke’s. Tell me that it wouldn’t fit in perfectly on Radiohead’s Amnesiac, a record that came out four years after Pop. I can’t overstate how ahead of its time Pop was.
Now all that said, am I suggesting that U2 give Pop the grand tour instead of The Joshua Tree? No, of course not. Dismissing the obvious – that such a tour wouldn’t fill stadiums – you don’t go to a U2 show to get bummed out. You go to lock arms and sing Where the Streets Have No Name at the top of your lungs. You go to feel community and love, the kind of which U2 claimed was lacking back in 1997. You go to be uplifted, and a U2 concert is nothing if not uplifting.
The Joshua Tree is the perfect record to take on tour right now, but not for the reasons the band is claiming. U2 has the power to make 60,000 people unite in joy – to spend at least three hours singing along to songs that made them feel good 30 years ago, with the hopes that they can feel that way again, even if just for a few hours. It’s what we need right now. Yes, it’s nostalgia, but U2 should own that honestly because there is no shame in making people feel good.
But if I might add one last request to U2. Would it kill you to slip “Wake Up Dead Man” into the set list? Because it doesn’t hurt to be reminded that after the show, we need to go about the business of fixing this awful mess.
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