U2, The Joshua Tree, and the Divided States of America

The Joshua Tree transformed U2 into superstars.  U2 is celebrating the album’s thirtieth anniversary with a world tour.  The original album tackled weighty real-world topics.  Bono and company want to connect the music to right now — to global anxieties about, immigration, human rights, and governmental regimes.

In 1987 an established rock and roll band named U2 dropped their fifth studio album, The Joshua Tree. Up to that point, U2 was a successful band. They had experienced critical and commercial success with albums like War and The Unforgettable Fire and with hits such as “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

But The Joshua Tree transformed U2 into superstars, with hit singles “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Where the Streets Have No Name”. It was their first album to hit No. 1 on the U.S. album chart. U2 found themselves on the cover of Time magazine. A Grammy was awarded to the music video for “Streets,” shot on top of a Los Angeles liquor store.  And when it was all said and done, The Joshua Tree sold more than 25,000,000 copies worldwide, was awarded the Grammy for Album of the Year, and contributed to U2 entering the discussion for greatest rock band ever.  When Rolling Stone Magazine compiled its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, five U2 albums were listed, with The Joshua Tree ranked No. 27 (U2’s highest presence on the list).

In 2017, U2 is celebrating the album’s thirtieth anniversary with a world tour that spans 33 shows for an estimated 1.7 million fans. But these Dubliners have no desire to present The Joshua Tree tour as a museum piece.  Bono and company want to connect the music to right now — to global anxieties about labor, immigration, human rights, governmental regimes, and the environment.

I remember listening to The Joshua Tree back when it was first released as an eleven-year-old.  The music that Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr. created on this seminal album had little political relevance to me.  It was merely the music of my childhood.  The songs were melodic, catchy, and seeping with emotion.

The Joshua Tree announces its ambitious and majestic intentions, not with a thunderous roar but the slow-build, epic, spine-tingling “Where The Streets Have No Name,” one of the greatest opening tracks ever.  The keyboards and guitars build like a morning sunrise, eclipsing the dark horizon, and then suddenly everything is illuminated.  It is a new day, filled with awe and wonder.  But there is an urgency embedded in the hope and optimism of U2’s music. 

The city’s a flood, and our love turns to rust.
We’re beaten and blown by the wind
Trampled in dust.
I’ll show you a place
High on a desert plain
Where the streets have no name

– Where the Streets Have No Name 

Revisiting the album as an adult, it’s impossible to listen to the entire album all the way to it’s understated finale of the gorgeous “Mothers Of The Disappeared,” and not absorb the weighty real-world topics tackled on this album.  Whether it’s the economic fear from “Red Hill Mining Town” or “Running to Stand Still” and its haunting prophecy of the current heroin epidemic, The Joshua Tree was the album where music evolved beyond “fun and catchy” to “important and weighty.”

U2 and the “Two Americas” – The Joshua Tree from a Political Perspective

The Joshua Tree wasn’t the first time U2 pontificated on the land of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  Their previous album, 1984’s Brian Eno- and Daniel Lanois-produced The Unforgettable Fire, had no less than two songs about Martin Luther King, Jr.  But according to The Edge in a recent interview with Rolling Stone,  The Joshua Tree was the first album where we consciously went, ‘OK, we spent like four albums thinking about Europe, Ireland, but let’s take a look at the roots of the form that we are inevitably a part of … and those were all American.”

She is liberty, and she comes to rescue me.
Hope, faith, her vanity
The greatest gift is gold.

Sleep comes like a drug in God’s country
Sad eyes, crooked crosses, in God’s country

In God’s Country 

The notion of an Irish rock band writing the musical equivalent of the Great American Novel would fit in with U2’s hubris and ambition.  But sometimes an outside observer can see things insiders overlook.  After all, America (or the Anglo version of America) was built on outsiders coming to the Promised Land.  The further the band from the South of Ireland dove into the American Deep South, the more Bono explored and reconciled his own divide between the secular and the spiritual in his soul.  Bono soon turned to American literature with Flannery O’Connor becoming a particular favorite.

The Joshua Tree took its name from a tough, twisted species of tree in the deserts of the American Southwest.  Known mostly in the music world as the resting place of Gram Parson’s ashes, the tree itself was named by Mormon pioneers after the Old Testament prophet Joshua, likening it to the prophet’s outstretched limbs, guiding them toward the Promised Land.

But originally the album had a different moniker, The Two Americas.  The original title wasn’t aimed at the chasm between the liberal and conservative cultural divide.  As Bono put it in a National Public Radio interview, the Two Americas spoke of “the mythic America and the real America. We were obsessed by America at the time. America’s a sort of promised land for Irish people — and then, a sort of potentially broken promised land.”

A Broken Promised Land

With its iconic cover taken by acclaimed photographer Anton Corbijn, the black-and-white desolation surrounding the stonefaced Irishmen reflected the album’s sounds of dusty blues, gospel, and folk – the musical influences that birthed Rock ‘n’ Roll.  The lyrics reflected the band’s fear that America had lost its way.  In 1987, the U.S. was engulfed in the Iran-Contra hearings.  The controversy over back-channel government collusion with sworn enemies shook the Reagan White House and divided the nation. 

For U2, social unrest is invariably linked with political strife.  Bono reportedly wrote the lyrics to “Where the Streets Have No Name” while doing humanitarian work in Africa.  Bono spoke about his experience with Live Aid and a trip to Ethiopia “to try to figure out how poverty can exist in a world of plenty.”  The lyrics take the social depravity of Africa and universalize them to a place where the streets have no name — where people from all walks of life can rise to their fullest potential and prosper in any number of ways.

Critiquing U.S. foreign policy is most sneeringly expounded on “Bullet the Blue Sky.”  It’s aggressive blues disrupt the 1-2-3 melodic trinity of “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” and “With or Without You.”  During the Cold War, U.S. supported wars to push back against perceived communist threats to Central America. 

You plant a demon seed, you raise a flower of fire

See them burning crosses, see the flames higher and higher

Bullet the Blue Sky

Bono told NPR “I went to El Salvador, trying to understand the conflict there. And I witnessed some things in Salvador which were really unspeakable. Seeing bodies thrown out of cars on the side of the road, terrible stuff that was going on. Watching foreign policy work itself out in a small country. That’s where “Bullet the Blue Sky” came from.”  The song includes a dreamlike sequence inspired by a trip Bono took to Central America in the latter stages of the cold war. It ends with violence-fleeing refugees “who run into the arms of America.”

U2’s ire was targeted at Ronald Reagan and his British facsimile, Margaret Thatcher.  The band commiserated with the notion of an American Dream that had been hijacked and turned into its exact opposite — a nightmare of freedom under threat and not likely to survive for long. 

Has Much Changed for 2017 America?

Thirty years after Reagan and Thatcher, U2 and others are reflecting on the politics that engulfed the eighties.  For many, time and perspective has eased their threatening imminence.   Some of that uneasiness, however, has been replaced with what some see as a much greater and even more existential cause for concern: a global right-wing populist movement that has spawned the likes of Brexit and Donald Trump.

America is no longer dealing with the Iran-Contra controversy.  In its place is the conspiracy Russia played in hacking the Presidential election to steer Donald Trump to victory.  Some Democrats are vocally calling to start the impeachment process against President Trump.  But despite record low approval ratings for Trump, the Democratic party is undergoing their own identity crisis and civil war.  A recent defeat in a high-profile congressional contest in Georgia has sparked infighting over the heart of the Democratic party.  Calls to oust Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi have been growing louder and louder.

U2 are currently touring an America more divided, dissatisfied, and incensed than it has ever been during their nearly four decades of touring this country.  And many of the themes from The Joshua Tree album continue to resonate in 2017.  Although U2 has championed themselves for their seething critiques of social and political discord, they also have championed themselves as unifiers.  Their brand of hope, harmony, and advocacy might be what their fans and our nation need more than ever.

Is The Joshua Tree a Psychological Profile of the Band?

It takes both audacity and immense talent to successfully create an album that surveys the landscape of the American myth.  Nobody has accused Bono and company of lacking audacity or talent.  U2 as a band has continuously circled around themes and topics that exposed the psychology beneath their music and the band.

At the core of U2’s music and their identity is conflict, tension, and struggle.  It’s the common thread throughout all that interests U2.  It’s the tension between hope and despair, the fine line dividing the sacred from the secular, and the tension between grandiosity and humility.  U2 has shown an infatuation, dare I say obsession, with themes that straggle the line between duality, polarity, contradictions, and paradoxes.

Side one of The Joshua Tree is a road trip for the listener.  The music and the lyrics of “Where the Streets Have No Name” promise a journey of purpose, meaning, hope and enthusiasm.  It is the unshakeable belief of Manifest Destiny and the power of American might.  When the listener arrives at “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” there is still earning and pursuit, but the actions and the accomplishments still leave the singer unfulfilled.  The singer turns inward to find comfort, hope, and meaning in the internal, the spiritual, and the future promise. 

“With or Without You” is a song of conflict with no clear resolution.  Bono sings about someone he can’t break free from while also recognizing true happiness cannot be achieved.  The endless cycle is reflective of the structure of the song.  The same four-chord pattern, D-A-Bm-G, is played the entire song, verses, chorus, and bridge.  The music and the lyrics communicating an endless cycle that will continue without change or resolution. 

My hands are tied, my body bruised
She got me with nothing to win
And nothing else to lose.

With or without you
With or without you
I can’t live
With or without you.

With or Without You

“Bullet the Blue Sky” highlights the misguided belief that politics and government alone can solve the world’s ills.  In U2’s hands, the song is an indictment of American politicians and their policies.  And then side one ends with “Running to Stand Still,” a mournful eulogy of two Dubliners damned by addiction to heroin. 

The first half of the Joshua Tree encapsulates not just U2 but the human condition.  A life of promise and meaning soon makes way for discontentment and longing.  The singer turns to religion, relationships, government, and finally drugs.  There is a longing and a searching but nothing satisfies the singer.  That perpetual struggle of dreams realized versus hopes dashed continues to form the restless undercurrent of the songs of U2.

Spiritual Struggle

Several years ago Joshua Rothman wrote a piece on U2 for the New Yorker.  Rothman explored the band’s faith and the spirituality of their lyrics.  The author expressed his confusion around “U2’s faith and postulated that they are a “semi-secretly Christian rock band.” Bono, who had a Roman Catholic father and an Anglican mother, has been transparent and forthcoming about his personal religious convictions.  His belief in a benevolent God spurs much of his philanthropic and humanitarian efforts.  Bono ties his personal faith intrinsically to social justice.  For him, faith without deeds is indeed dead.

I believe in the Kingdom Come
Then all the colors will bleed into one
Bleed into one.
But yes, I’m still running.

You broke the bonds
And you loosed the chains
Carried the cross of my shame
Oh my shame, you know I believe it.

But I still haven’t found
What I’m looking for.

I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

The birth of American rock is intrinsically tied to blues and folk, music that spoke about religion and faith.  After all, Rock ‘n’ Roll was originally pegged “the Devil’s Music.”  Religion and spirituality was and is a core component of America.  And the struggle and tension continue.  Whether it is the paranoid piety of the Puritan settlers or the twenty-first-century white, evangelical Christians voting for Donald Trump in record numbers, America struggles to meet its religious aspirations.  Its track record as “A shiny city on a hill” for the rest of the world is spotty at best and duplicitous at worst.

Bono: The Trumpian Politician or the Messianic Messenger?

There is no other rock star quite like Bono.  He can be pompous and pretentious one moment, and earnest and humble the next minute.  U2 wants it all.  They strive for both critical and commercial success.  They want respect from the music world but also champion their fans.  The band’s ambition and need to be adored rub some people the wrong way.  And yet, although Bono can carry himself with the gravitas of a politician he comes across as a caring man who genuinely believes in the things he says and the causes he champions.

Want to know who U2 are and what they are about?  All you have to do is listen to The Joshua Tree.

“I Want to Run … into the Arms of America!”

As America navigates a particularly dark period for the country, it is important to hold onto the small, flickering lights that still exist. The music that might have sounded silly or overwrought in the 1990s and 2000s has once again become as if overnight, a thing to take solace in.

The political parallels between 1987 and 2017 is one of the reasons U2 decided to take The Joshua Tree on tour this summer. “I don’t think any of our work has ever come full circle to that extent,” The Edge told Rolling Stone shortly after making the tour announcement. “It just felt like, ‘Wow, these songs have a new meaning and a new resonance today that they didn’t have three years ago, four years ago.’”  Three decades later, the Irish band’s vision of America has become relevant all over again.

U2 has made the conscious decision not to rail against Donald Trump onstage during The Joshua Tree tour, something Bono did regularly last year.  “It’s very important that people who voted for Donald Trump feel welcome at our show,” he told Rolling Stone magazine.

The Joshua Tree is about the American dream, both mythological and lived, and during the current Joshua Tree tour, Bono has made the point of addressing the chasm between those two concepts again and again. “Tonight is for those letting go of the American dream,” he said about halfway through the band’s performance of the album in full during one of their two Los Angeles concerts. “And for those who are holding onto the American Dream.”

Maybe the America that U2 immortalized with The Joshua Tree never truly existed except in the hearts and minds of the band and their fans. 

Where the streets have no name
Where the streets have no name.

We’re still building and burning down love
Burning down love.
And when I go there
I go there with you
(It’s all I can do).

Where the Streets Have No Name 

Listen to The Joshua Tree on YouTube. 

Purchase The Joshua Tree on iTunes.

Check for remaining dates on The Joshua Tree Tour.

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Jonathan Hetterly, LPC

Jonathan Hetterly is a therapist, writer, and pop culture addict. He’s also a contributor to The Shrink Tank podcast. Follow him at @jhetterly and @shrink_tank.

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