Hot Press - - 30Joshuatree - BILL GRA­HAM

Hav­ing cham­pi­oned U2 since their ear­li­est days, and been in­stru­men­tal in in­tro­duc­ing them to Paul McGuin­ness, the late Bill Gra­ham was the mu­sic writer who per­haps knew the band best. In a land­mark re­view of the record that made U2 su­per­stars, he anal­y­ses the Amer­i­can in­flu­ences the band had taken on­board – and high­lights the qual­i­ties that turned the al­bum into a phe­nom­e­non.

With The Joshua Tree, the U2 pen­du­lum swings back to Amer­ica again. If The Un­for­get­table Fire, par­tially through Brian Eno’s guid­ance, was their most Euro­pean record, this, their fifth stu­dio al­bum, turns their sights again on the Big Coun­try, some­times howl­ing off in pur­suit of the ghosts that pos­sess the Amer­i­can soul. In time, it may be reck­oned their most in­flu­en­tial al­bum to date.

It also clar­i­fies how U2’s vo­ca­tion has be­come the re­vival and re­newal of rock and the re­cov­ery of its most ro­man­tic val­ues. Between the in­creas­ingly mer­ce­nary im­plo­sion of hard rock into a static vaudeville rou­tine and the in­ter­ven­tion of pop dance-floor val­ues, rock has lost its lus­tre and mys­tique of gen­uinely re­deem­ing pas­sion. From one an­gle, The Un­for­get­table Fire can now seem a strate­gic re­treat, to re­group, re­assess the sit­u­a­tion and gain new am­mu­ni­tion. But if that al­bum nec­es­sar­ily cir­cum­vented some of the is­sues, The Joshua Tree re­turns to a frontal assault.

It is also the sec­ond suc­ces­sive al­bum where U2 strip away the skins of their pre­vi­ous styles. Only the open­ing 'Where The Streets Have No Name', 'In God’s Coun­try' and, pos­si­bly, el­e­ments of 'One Tree Hill' pre­serve pre­vi­ously iden­ti­fi­able hall­marks. Oth­er­wise, The Edge’s gui­tar has de­vel­oped its own mil­i­tary ten­dency, hom­ing in on the legacy of Jimi Hen­drix and Led Zep­pelin, while the group’s new com­mit­ment to songs finds both Bono and the rhythm sec­tion con­tend­ing on dance-floors they never pre­vi­ously fre­quented, with com­plete con­fi­dence.

For, stylis­ti­cally, the tri­umph of this al­bum is that, like Prince, U2 prove an act can still be con­tem­porar­ily com­mer­cial and also cap­ture the higher ground. There’s a host of un­ex­pected in­flu­ences here but they’ve been dis­crim­i­nat­ingly used, to re­lease rather than im­prison the band. The ef­fect is to re­lease rock also from its own self-im­posed shackle, for, in the process of re­set­ting their sights, U2 un­ravel a se­ries of mu­si­cal prob­lems, other less res­o­lute souls have aban­doned for cliche.

Twice, they al­most teeter on the brink. Both 'Red Hill Min­ing Town' and 'I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Look­ing For' are more ob­vi­ously sin­gles than any­thing pre­vi­ously re­leased bar 'Pride', but the first is per­ilously close to Bon Jovi in its scarf-wav­ing melody, while the lat­ter is des­tined to pro­voke com­par­isons with Rod Ste­wart – al­beit be­fore that singer’s ca­reer be­came an end­less au­di­tion for Dy­nasty and Mi­ami Vice.

Bon Jovi and Rod Ste­wart? To some, this will sound like I’m ex­cus­ing a crude sell-out. That isn’t true at all, for two rea­sons. First, be­cause Bono has never be­fore sung with such emo­tional ac­cu­racy. And se­condly be­cause this is a most de­cep­tive al­bum, si­mul­ta­ne­ously swim­ming into the main­stream and then re­coil­ing from its most re­pel­lent val­ues.

For if the mu­sic is pro-Amer­i­can, the mes­sage hardly is. For in­stance, if 'Red Hill Min­ing Town' ini­tially sounds like po­ten­tial stan­dard MTV fare, its lyric about an un­em­ployed and dis­pos­sessed min­ing fam­ily def­i­nitely isn’t. Thus The Joshua

Tree con­sis­tently shifts tar­gets and ex­pec­ta­tions. But, then, U2’s own per­spec­tives have also shifted. The Joshua Tree may be the first al­bum where U2 have dared to let the demons loose in the stu­dio, the one where ul­ti­mately all the is­sues of re­li­gious faith seem as com­plex and clouded as they re­ally are. On 'Exit', both the gui­tar and rhythms con­vey a brood­ing pre­mo­ni­tion, as Bono tells the tale of one of those psy­chotic saviours with warped in­ter­pre­ta­tions of the Old Tes­ta­ment, a mur­derer slay­ing with “the hands

of love”. Here, U2 fi­nally con­fess their grad­ual recog­ni­tion of the Anti-Christ in every­body.

For faith is no longer what once it seemed. 'I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Look­ing For' is all its ti­tle says, U2 gone soul and gospel but admitting doubt and rest­less­ness. Else­where cer­tain­ties be­come co­nun­drums: “Sleep comes like a drug... sad eyes crooked crosses... In God’s Coun­try” (Amer­ica not Ire­land – for­eign cor­re­spon­dents please copy) boasts a pow­er­ful am­bi­gu­ity: 'Bul­let The Blue Sky', “Plant a de­mon seed, you raise a flower of fire / See them burn­ing crosses, see the flames, higher and higher”.

“The Joshua Tree may be the first al­bum where U2 have dared to let the demons loose in the stu­dio, the one where ul­ti­mately all the is­sues of re­li­gious faith seem as com­plex and clouded as they re­ally are."

This last track is where U2 re­ally cut the cable. The fourth track into the first side, on it The Edge re­leases a dirty, fu­ri­ous wall of sound un­der re­morse­less, lock­step rhythms, these mu­si­cal dra­mat­ics in ser­vice to a sce­nario that’s lo­cated some­where in the killing fields of Cen­tral Amer­ica. A key track, where U2 rub­bish heavy metal con­form­ity, it could also be­come this year’s 'Bad', the spon­ta­neous com­bus­tion cen­tre­piece of the tour as Bono lets fly with a rap about a tempter “peel­ing off those dol­lar bills”.

Its vi­o­lence also un­der­scores the dif­fer­ence between this al­bum and its pre­de­ces­sor. For if The Un­for­get­table

Fire's airier tex­tures seemed to evoke the more cel­e­bra­tory, mys­ti­cal as­pects of be­lief, The Joshua Tree finds U2 as wor­ried, even fright­ened, men grap­pling with the moral bur­dens of suf­fer­ing, cul­mi­nat­ing in the clos­ing track, 'Moth­ers Of The Dis­ap­peared', about the vic­tims of state ter­ror­ism, and patently in­spired by last sum­mer’s Amer­i­can ben­e­fit tour for Amnesty In­ter­na­tional.

Could and should their pol­i­tics be more ex­plicit? It de­pends on your per­spec­tive. U2 presently con­tent them­selves with a lib­eral moral­ism that’s alert both to how planet pop lim­its lo­cal lan­guage and the fact that their po­ten­tial Amer­i­can con­stituency can­not, by any stretch of the imag­i­na­tion, be equated with NME read­ers. But even if the sheer force of U2’s mu­sic drama­tises their para­bles, as a lyric-writer, Bono may still be erring on the safe side of coded am­bi­gu­ity.

Of course, there’s more to The Joshua Tree. 'Trip Through Your Wires', once an un­ruly debu­tante on TV Ga

Ga, has been dis­ci­plined into a Dy­lanesque stomp, with Bono let loose on har­mon­ica, while an­other love song and pos­si­ble sin­gle, 'With Or With­out You' has per­haps his most con­trolled vo­cal, build­ing from an al­most con­ver­sa­tional first verse over a bare rhythm sec­tion to a soul-bar­ing con­fes­sion.

“And you give your­self away,” he sings – a line which may be the key to the U2 ethos, to the heart of a band who have con­sis­tently preached their own brand of self-sur­ren­der. This al­bum may be scat­tered with ref­er­ences to the desert but, in this dry and wa­ter­less place, U2 would also be at one with AI Green in singing 'Take Me To The River'.

That river re­turns on 'One Tree Hill'. Ded­i­cated to their Maori roadie, Greg Car­roll, killed in last year’s mo­tor­cy­cle ac­ci­dent, it starts with light, glis­ten­ing, al­most African gui­tar from The Edge, over Adam and Larry’s own amend­ment of tribal rhythms, with the gui­tar be­com­ing in­creas­ingly ag­gres­sive through the song. But 'One Tree Hill' is hope­ful. “We run like a river to the sea,” Bono sings, Mike Scott’s metaphor re­cast in terms of eter­nal life and the Maori’s own be­lief.

Once again, U2’s re­li­gious ro­man­ti­cism be­comes the source of pos­i­tive val­ues. More sec­u­larly-minded peo­ple may think this pre­pos­ter­ous but U2’s re­li­gious im­pulse – closer to Sufi lore, based on love not dogma, pre­fer­ring the ker­nel to the shell of for­mal­ism – is cu­ri­ously ca­pa­ble of re­viv­ing the old skin of dead rock cer­e­monies that, as a sec­u­lar sub­sti­tute for re­li­gion, have patently de­gen­er­ated this decade.

Some­how they con­tinue to evade the traps.

The Joshua Tree res­cues rock from its de­cay, bravely and unashamedly bas­ing it­self in the main­stream be­fore very clev­erly lift­ing off into sev­eral higher dimensions. They’ve been mis­un­der­stood oc­ca­sion­ally, even by their com­mit­ted sup­port­ers – but af­ter The Joshua Tree, with its skill, and the diversity of is­sues it touches, one thing is ab­so­lutely clear: U2 can no longer be pa­tro­n­ised with faint and glib praise. They must be taken very se­ri­ously in­deed af­ter this re-eval­u­a­tion of rock.

U2: Close to Sufi lore

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