The Joshua Tree (9th March 1987; Island Records) was U2’s fifth studio album and drew heavily on the American myth, following the band’s extensive touring there. Singer Bono had reportedly steeped himself in American ‘outsider’ literature ‘, such as that of Norman Mailer, Raymond Carver, and Flannery O'Connor, while guitarist The Edge, drew on artists he had recently discovered, such as Howlin' Wolf, Robert Johnson, and Hank Williams, to produce a more minimalist sound that became his hallmark. The lyrics addressed spiritual, romantic and political themes, while the music broadened the band’s palette with layered rhythms and textures. The result helped U2 supercede their previous album The Unforgettable Fire - containing their biggest single to date Pride (In the Name of Love) -, and went on to sell over 25 million copies. Furthermore it spawned the singles With or Without You, I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, and Where the Streets Have No Name; the first two of which made number 1 in the US, and cemented their status as a global act.
The ingredients thrown into the melting pot for this album also signalled change. Longtime producer Steve Lillywhite was largely replaced by Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, and the new producers’ novel methods, for example by working alternately with the band (eg one week on; one week off), and Eno seeking to pretend that a demo had been accidentally erased, so as to overcome a creative block, added spice to the mix. The band's participation in Amnesty International’s Conspiracy of Hope concerts and the death of roadie and friend Greg Carroll in a motorcycle accident also impacted on the songs, with the latter tragedy ending up by inspiring the song One Tree Hill. Anton Corbijn’s sleeve photography, depicting the band in the American desert, symbolically rounded off the idea of an alternative world and a change of direction.
While The Edge had composed the rock number Where the Streets Have No Name, drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton found the rhythmic changes difficult to make work smoothly and this resulted in endless versions being made. Eno himself estimated that around 40% of the time spent on The Joshua Tree was spent on this one song alone.
The eclectic musical influences on The Joshua Tree is extraordinary. The hugely popular I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For features a train-like drum rhythm, while the frenetic punk and biblical imagery of Bullet the Blue Sky showcases Bono singing falsetto. With or Without You, with The Edge playing sustained notes on a prototype of the Infinite Guitar, has been described as a ‘rock & roll bolero’ while Running to Stand Still, about drug addiction, is a blues number.
On the ‘B side’, Red Hill Mining Town is a politically-driven song about communities that abruptly lose their mining industry, while Trip Through Your Wires, among other aspects, features harmonica. The album closes with another political number, Mothers of the Disappeared, inspired by Argentina’s ‘missing’ activists. The subject matter is unremittingly bleak but the final message is one of compassion and peace.
The Joshua Tree was a breakthrough for U2 and represented a peak that the group would understandably struggle to return to. As manager Paul McGuinness concluded, the album originated from the band's “great romance with the United States”. The Irish band had worked enormously hard by heavily touring that vast and varied continent over many years and this, finally, was the moment that all that effort bore fruit.