The Skeptic's Guide to U2: The Postmodern Blues of The Joshua Tree

In celebration of U2’s headlining 2017’s Bonnaroo festival, BTRtoday presents a series on how our editor-in-chief learned to stop worrying and love U2. Read part one here. Want to see Bono and the boys at Bonnaroo? BTRtoday is giving away tickets. Click here for info.

Until Joshua Tree, U2 were a new wave band. Their peers were PiL, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Magazine and Echo & The Bunnymen. Joshua Tree made them superstars—at the cost of losing their post punk edge.

I could write a couple paragraphs about U2’s place in the new wave canon. Or I could just embed the video of their first TV appearance and make the point a lot faster.

After three albums worth of scrappy, bass-driven, angular music, U2 hooked up with producer Brian Eno on Unforgettable Fire. Eno’s influence on their sound was immediately apparent. The swooping echo guitar that opens “A Sort of Homecoming” signals that Eno’s abstruse approach to pop music drives the music. 

Eno creates a cold and European sound that’s made electric by Bono’s vocals. The fight between cold intellect and hot passion continues throughout the album, culminating in the release of “Bad,” a song that would be edgy and minimalist new wave without Bono’s emotive performance.

With the Joshua Tree, U2 shook off their cold European angularity altogether and replaced it with warm, cushiony Americana. It’s no country blues album, obviously, but it’s awash in slide guitar, harmonica and acoustic guitars—the same heirloom seeds that produced the classic rock bounties of Highway 61 Revisited, Rubber Soul and Beggars Banquet.

It feels intimate but everything’s at a distance. The songs aren’t blues or country. U2 and Eno borrow the instrumental palette of blues and country to create postmodern music informed by new wave’s deconstructive approach to pop music. Country and blues sounds are texture, mood and accents used to instill or manipulate emotions. The slide guitar in “Bullet the Blue Sky” doesn’t create a melody. It instills a sense of dread. A similar atmosphere is achieved with the church-like organ intro of “Where the Streets Have No Name” and the harmonica in “Trip Through Your Wires.”

Without tethering to the jittery electric guitar rock of Unforgettable Fire, Bono has ample room to stretch as a singer. Listening to “Where the Streets Have No Name” back to back with “A Sort of Homecoming,” it’s obvious why the former is a career-making hit and the latter is a deep cut. Bono’s vocals soar but it somehow feels less earned when he doesn’t have to fight his way over the frozen crystal city Edge builds with his guitar tracks on “A Sort of Homecoming.”

I listen to a lot of U2 and  Joshua Tree is the album I most often skip. But I played it today as I wrote this piece. The album’s clockwork machinery surprised me. Every little echoing guitar chime, no matter how deep in the mix, clicked in with almost unnerving precision. U2 have been a headphone band ever since hooking up with Eno. They replicated their crystal cities with organic parts and the interlocking complexity is more subtle but still present.

The Joshua Tree was a huge hit when it was released. Thirty years on that seems like a strange accident. U2 were destined to be huge, I think–their songs are so crowd pleasing it’s impossible to think they’d suffer through any kind of obscurity.

It’s odd and perhaps unfortunate that their reverse engineering experiment with classic rock was the thing that broke them.