U2's Roots Revisited In 'The Joshua Tree'

By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Police handed off their instruments to U2 at a 1986 "Conspiracy of Hope" concert, but it wasn't until the "The Joshua Tree" in 1987 that U2 truly won the mantle of World's Biggest Band. U2's fifth album was a windswept, widescreen epic of spiritual poverty and global unrest, synthesizing the wide-eyed piety of "Boy" with the impassioned agitprop of "War" and the ethereal drift of "The Unforgettable Fire" to create their finest 50-minute hour.

Aided by the lunar soundscapes of producers Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, and by Anton Corbijn's iconic sleeve photos, "The Joshua Tree" (now in reissue for its 20th anniversary), transformed U2 into the Po-Faced Pilgrims of Rock, an image they'd spend much of the next decade gleefully, then desperately, trying to destroy. But the songs were the best the band had ever written, inspired by the bloody fallout of Reagan-era Latin America policy and by American writers Sam Shepard, Raymond Carver and Flannery O'Connor. Musically, Lanois pushed U2 far outside its comfort zone, wringing the unlikely No. 1 hit "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" from the percussion parts of an abandoned tune called "Desert of Our Love." "With or Without You" went to No. 1, too. U2 had always had Big Ideas, but now it came emboldened with specificity. Focus. Hooks.

The reissue features remastered sound, and its two deluxe editions include the album's fine (previously compiled) B sides, plus four newly unearthed outtakes, including the one that begat "Still Haven't Found." You also get the original 1985 take of the apartheid blues "Silver and Gold" by Bono, Ron Wood and Keith Richards -- grittier and spookier than the later U2 version.

Serious fans will need the pricey-but-worth it "Super Deluxe" edition with the DVD, for its treasures be plentiful: The 1987 MTV tour documentary "Outside Is America" is funnier and more revealing than the puffed-up 1988 theatrical release "Rattle and Hum." An 85-minute concert video from Paris captures the band at its most inspiring and most hambone. An "Easter Egg" stars U2's country-western alter ego, the Dalton Brothers. Finally, there's the Neil Jordan-directed video for "Red Hill Mining Town," locked away since U2 declined to release the song as a single. Seeing it now doesn't reveal why -- it's goofy, sure, with a greased-up Bono making goo-goo eyes at Jordan's camera, but no more embarrassing than most videos from 1987.

The deluxe versions also include a booklet of candid reflections from the band, Eno, Lanois, Corbijn and rock journalist/VH1 honcho Bill Flanagan, one of their earliest U.S. boosters. "Much better than the band that made it at the time," concludes Bono of the album, whose tough critique of his own lyrics disses "Where the Streets Have No Name" as "a gigantic idea which is poorly expressed." He's had plenty of chances to revise. "Streets," along with the rest of Side A of "The Joshua Tree," remains in U2's live set to this day.

It all adds up to a justly reverent treatment of one of the most enduring albums of the 1980s.

DOWNLOAD THESE:"Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," "Bullet the Blue Sky."

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