Three decades ago, U2 had some important things to say about American proxy warfare, the plight of British miners, and the societal constructs that keep people everywhere from recognizing their shared humanity. Rather than spell things out explicitly, like their early punk heroes might have, Bono and the boys channeled their feelings into 1987’s The Joshua Tree, a heroic rock album written in the mystically blunt poetry of the Old Testament. And it was good.
Brought to life by intrepid producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, The Joshua Tree was U2’s fifth studio LP and first U.S. chart-topper. The album turns 30 this March, and to celebrate, the group will play it from top to bottom as part of a run of special stadium shows across North America and Europe. It’s a fine way to celebrate their career-making magnum opus, and given the state of the world, it makes a lot of sense.
When The Joshua Tree dropped, America was nearing the end of eight years spent under the reign of President Reagan. Ronnie’s covert military actions in Central America directly inspired two of the songs — the rumbling “Bullet the Blue Sky” and mournful “Mothers of the Disappeared” — and the impacts of his divisive policies can be felt on “In God’s Country,” and perhaps even the album’s idealistic opener, “Where the Streets Have No Name.” On the latter, Bono imagines a desegregated world where a person’s address doesn’t necessarily speak to their race, class, or religion.
Now that America is about to inaugurate Donald Trump, a bigoted nationalist who made a fortune plastering his name all over properties catering to the rich, The Joshua Tree feels relevant in new ways. (Bono even prefaced “Bullet the Blue Sky” with some anti-Trump talk last October.) And it’s not just America splintering — Europe and the Middle East are profoundly divided, too. For the first time since the Cold War, people are talking about the apocalypse like it’s just a misunderstanding away. Heavy times call for “Big Music,” as an entire ‘80s rock subgenre was known, and there’s no music bigger than The Joshua Tree.
The bigness had a lot to do with inclusiveness. The album didn’t spawn two No. 1 hits and a global stadium tour by appealing solely to liberals. It’s not even a front-to-back political album. “Running to Stand Still” is about heroin abuse. “Trip Through Your Wires” is a bluesy love song delivered like a bible story. “One Tree Hill” is an arena-gospel tribute to a fallen friend and his New Zealand homeland, plus Chilean poet Victor Jara. The bleak throb of “Exit” pushes Bono into the mind of a serial killer. But given the singer’s abstract lyrical style, fans in pre-Internet ‘87 would’ve been free to insert themselves into the lyrics as necessary; especially live, where these songs really caught fire.
On Joshua Tree, as American roots music collides with the atmospherics of U2’s previous effort, The Unforgettable Fire, every song is an adventure movie — a landscape painting that the listener gets to color in. No matter what Bono is singing about, you’re there in a leather vest, scaling a mountain as wind whips your ponytail. If Trump lovers and Bernie Bros don’t want the same things, they both want something. And for anyone still able to squash their cynicism long enough to get lost in something like a rock concert, an evening with The Joshua Tree might place that something within view. It’ll be there on the horizon, shimmering like the Edge’s guitar, forever out of reach and beautiful all the same.