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All Killer No Filler: U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 8, 2007

Cry without weeping, talk without speaking, scream without raising your voice

This is what I like more than anything about re-issues of big albums. Not the bonus tracks–the surfeit of b-sides, outtakes, alternate versions and live tracks. Not the liner notes–the sprawling essays giving the album’s background information, historical context, and explanations of greatness. Hell, not even the packaging–the inexplicably giddy thrill of poring over the shiny casing, opening and closing it far more times than necessary. I mean, all of these things are necessary to justify a $29 price tag, but they’re still not the best part.

The best part is getting to listen to these albums fresh, the closest thing you’ll ever get to listening to it for the first time again. I’m not even sure what it is about the deluxe re-issue that makes this possible–the fact that the artifact of the album now looks and feels different, the fact that you’re buying it all over again (and occasionally for the first time, in case of albums I’ve only had burned copies of), and the fact that often it’s been a long-ass time since you last heard it all probably have something to do with it. But it allows you to listen to albums with a totally clean-slated perspective. And it’s a beautiful thing.

The Joshua Tree is of course the reason I’m writing about this, recently given the two-disc deluxe re-issue treatment. I haven’t listend to Joshua in ages–lately I’ve been more into their weirder stuff, like The Unforgettable Fire, and of course, their two mid-90s oddities, Zooropa and Pop. And in any event, I always thought Achtung Baby was by far the superior album anyway. Joshua was too top-heavy, too self-righteous, and not nearly as interesting or experimental as most of their other great albums.

So, let’s take these three complaints one by one, now that I’ve spent a little time with it once more. Too top-heavy? Absofuckinglutely. But then again, you’re dealing with maybe the greatest A side of any album, ever–three of the best and best-loved rock singles of the whole decade (“Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “With or Without You”), and two emotionally searing and deservedly enduring concert staples (“Bullet the Blue Sky,” “Running to Stand Still”). And “Red Hill Mining Town”…well, it’s not exactly on the same level, but close enough. Six great songs, perfectly paced, no two even remotely similar. There isn’t a B side in rock history that could measure up to this.

And yeah, Joshua‘s B doesn’t really even seem to be vying to do so–do we really need both “In God’s Country” and “One Tree Hill”? And what the hell is “Trip Through Your Wires” doing there? Still, it’s a lot stronger than I remembered–“In God’s Country” is far more of a chest-beater than I remembered (or at least, until I saw it used brilliantly at the end of Three Kings a few months ago), and “Exit” has revealed itself to be one of the key tracks of the albums. And “Trip Through Your Wires”…well, I still don’t really get it’s place on the album, but it kinda rocks anyway.

Too self-righteous? Well, maybe when compared to their post-irony period of self-consciousness, but not really. “Mothers of the Disappeared” used to be the subject of one of my main grievances about the album–I thought it was a nothing closer, just more Bono guilt tripping with poor musicality to back it up. But I think I get it now–the way the drum beat sort of pulses through the song, accenting the “feel their heartbeat” line of the chorus, and the way the song never really rises to the crescendo you expect it to, it’s sort of the perfect way to end the album. And I realize now that whenever Joshua tended to get a little preachy, they always have the music there to back it up–the other perfect example is “Bullet the Blue Sky,” a song occasionally villified for its heavy-handedness, but one whose instrumental backing is heavy enough (that bass rumble! that guitar shrapnel! that FUCKING DRUM BEAT!!) that any subject matter less weighty would’ve just felt woefully insubstantial.

Not nearly as interesting or experimental? This one I was just plain wrong about. I never realized what an unbelievably textured and complex album this was. Check the way “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” layers four or five guitar lines in a way that you never even relaly notice, or the way songs like “Exit” or “With or Without You” subtly crescendo for basically the whole song, building momentum and intensity until they’re practically unbearable, or the way songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” or “Running to Stand Still” are structured palandromically, gradually adding elements one by one at the beginning and then removing them one by one in the reverse order at the end. Even a song as simple as “Trip Through Your Wires” still has such care and thought put into its production that it still makes a fascinating headphone listen–this is an Eno co-production, after all.

But the thing that really smacked me over the head listening to this album again was how really, it feels like a post-rock album. Check out the intros to some of these songs, and how they correspond to nearly every major post-rock artist of the last twenty years–“One Tree Hill” is a dead ringer for a Durutti Column track, “Where the Streets Have No Name” practically invented the Disco Inferno guitar sound, “Running to Stand Still” could easily begin a Tortoise track and the creeping bass that begins “Exit” is a song lead-in of which Mogwai would be proud. The fact that The Joshua Tree probably still sells more every year than any of these bands have in their entire career shows just what a brilliant album this is–they were able to use this experimental, nearly outre production techniques and fashion anthemic, emotional songs around them that mainstream listeners could understand just as well as underground ones.

Hope that all the U2 albums get this treatment eventually. I feel like maybe I’ve been giving War and Rattle & Hum the short shrift recently.

3 Responses to “All Killer No Filler: U2 – The Joshua Tree (1987)”

  1. jonathan said

    Love the Mogwai/”Exit” comparison. It totally works, and I’d never thought of it before.

    I’d like to see you re-evaluate Rattle & Hum. It’s far from perfect, but there’s a lot more there than it gets credited with (“Heartland,” “Van Diemens Land,” “All I Want is You,” the live “Bullet,” just to start…)

  2. The Platypus of Truth said

    I agree with your assessment of the album’s sides, except for the fact that “Red Hill Mining Town” doesn’t close out side 1, it opens side 2.

  3. billy said

    “Trip Through Your Wires” has always been my favorite track on this.

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