Song by Song: "The Joshua Tree" by U2

The Joshua Tree was U2's most important album. It marks the point at which they became a global brand as big as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. They had laid the groundwork for this success with previous albums and working relationships, most particularly with producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois, both of whom had worked on The Joshua Tree's predecessor, the excellent The Unforgettable Fire. The Joshua Tree had the same lush aural textures as that album, but it also had a stronger dynamic, greater accessibility, more artistic unity, and less filler. Although written at different times and with various inspirations, the songs on The Joshua Tree work together as a whole in ways that were not entirely intended by Bono & Co., and which give the album its power.

What follows is my "reading" of this album.

U2's music is often described as "cinematic" but a more appropriate word would be onomatopoeic – i.e. sounds suggesting images, actions, and ideas. This album is their most onomatopoeic, with each song sonically suggesting ideas and themes that then slot into what turns out to be fairly compelling narrative, a kind of existential novel in sound.

Where the Streets Have No Name

The album kicks off with the orchestral synth wash of Where the Streets Have No Name, creating an effect like early morning sunrise spreading across a landscape. There is a sense of beginnings. A pulsating guitar line is then introduced, coming at us like a Doppler Effect, suggesting not only movement and dynamism but actual road travel. Right from the start we feel we are on a journey.

Bono reportedly wrote the lyrics on an airsickness bag during a humanitarian trip to Ethiopia in an attempt to evoke a sense of borderlessness, but the lyrics are vague enough to evoke the vibe of open-ended travel – streets with no names, desert plains, etc. The listener feels like a hitchhiker who has just been picked up and is then hearing his interlocutor's tale as they race along.

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

The guitar dominating this song has a clanging, bell-like sound. This, in tandem with the spiritual (or not so spiritual) yearning of the lyrics, creates a churchy atmosphere, as if our narrator/ driver has had a sudden need to pull into one of America's mega churches for a bit of the Pentecostal other.

The ambiguity of the spiritual metaphors – "I have kissed honey lips/ I have spoke with the tongue of angels/ I have held the hand of a devil" – which may actually be intensely carnal, suggests a conflicted soul, strung out, like Nietzsche's rope, between beast and overrman. But what is the source of this deep inner conflict? The next song presents several clues.

With Or Without You

Although the guitar adds sharp accents and the drums pound relentlessly, this is a song dominated by Bono's close-up, breathy vocal. Here is a man – possibly in a bar over a few beers – telling you his intense angst about a specific relationship, and becoming emotionally unstuck in the process, so much so that he seems to be confusing the second and third persons, as his "she" becomes "you."

It is as if the character that Bono is channeling is using his listener as a sounding board, and is rehearsing a scene that was already played out long ago. When the guitar kicks in, it is almost like a sniper's rifle shooting at the open, undefended heart of the man, giving sonic shape to the analogy that love is war. This character may be an old soldier of some sort, and we suspect that he has not only suffered hurt but also inflicted it, but to what degree only the remainder of the album can tell us.

Bullet the Blue Sky

Arriving at the end of three strong songs, Bullet The Blue Sky is the heart of the album. The song rumbles towards us with marching drums and a sense of brooding menace, evoking Led Zeppelins' When the Levee Breaks, conjuring up a hurricane, and suggesting war.

The long tortured notes that the Edge wrings out of his guitar create the onomatopoeic effect of a variety of deadly weapons – mortar fire, rockets, low-flying jets. We seem to be caught in some horrific flashback from an actual war zone, but, as signified by the lyrics, with their old testament resonances – "locust hum", "demon seed," "Jacob wrestled the angel and the angel was overcome" – the war is also the eternal one that rages in the heart of man. Troubling imagery – "burning crosses" – hint at other layers of evil.

The heavy, mashed beats create a hypnotic shell-shocked effect, and, through this, Bono seems to pass into a trance-like state, where he starts rapping, like a man mumbling in his dreams. He recalls a past spent in seedy gambling dens.

The song was written as a commentary on President Reagan's proxy war against the Sandinista's in Nicaragua, but this is lost in the more compelling narrative of an ex-GI with gambling problems and blood guilt, and the way he equates the personal with the political, seeing America's foreign policy as an extension of his own unease.


The story so far: We, the listener, hitchhiking across America, get a lift from a deeply troubled soul, who has "been in the wars," both literally and figuratively. As we drive across the expansive landscape he then proceeds to use us as  a sounding board for the existential monologue that had been rattling around in his brain. Along the way we stop at a church and a couple of bars, where we get hints of a love gone wrong. We even share a motel room, where we see him tormented by bad dreams. But just when we're thinking that maybe this guy has too many problems for us to handle, things improve and we decide to stick around for the rest of the ride.

Running To Stand Still

A nice come down from the intensity of the first four songs. The guitar – that sharpener of emotions – has been placed within its scabbard. This is the calm after the storm, suffused with a sense of gentle fatalism, as if a tortured soul has accepted its destiny, and is beginning to focus on the day-to-day again. This interpretation cuts across the song's supposed genesis as a comment on Dublin's 1980's heroin epidemic. 

Red Hill Mining Town

Bono has said that this song was an attempt to create the sort of blue collar songs that Bruce Springsteen was then enjoying considerable success with, but, in the flow of the album, it works more as a continuation of the  "new, fresh day" vibe begun with the previous song. Musically the song has an optimistic, ascendant feel, although lyrically it reprises some of the darker themes from earlier – "Love, slowly stripped away/ Love, has seen its better day, etc."

Our interlocutor seems to be someone from a working class background who has become unhinged by losing touch with his roots – "Through hands of steel and heart of stone/ Our labor day has come and gone," he sings. Not unlike Bono, perhaps. The song also introduces an ecological element, the red hill, which suggests violation of the earth/ female, another theme we encounter.

In God's Country

Fast, choppy guitars bring back the propulsive feel the album opened with. We are travelling across the wide open spaces again. Perhaps it is only through such dynamism that our interlocutor can achieve mental equilibrium, a theme also hinted at by the lyric Running to Stand Still.

It is also significant that the desert is equated with sexual relations: the "mirage" of love – "Dreamed I saw a desert rose/ Dress torn in ribbons and in bows/ Like a siren, she calls to me."

But why is the feminine equated with an arid waste? This is a man for whom love has perhaps been a mirage.

Trip Through Your Wires

After the aridity of the desert comes a swill of wet emotions: a shambling beat, looser guitar, and mouth organ flourishes. This song is U2's attempt to get down, dirty, and bluesy. We seem to have stopped at a roadside honky-tonk, next to a gospel hall, and going by the lyrics – "Angel or devil/ I was thirsty/ And you wet my lips" – not too far from the nearest whorehouse.

In short, this song seems to embody the banality of American society and an embrace of the possibilities of the simple, vulgar existence with its quick fixes for the hunger of the belly or the soul. The song is an attempt at revivalism in both senses of the word – religious and through getting in touch with the raw muscle and primitive emotions of the land and its people. This, more than the effete Red Hill Mining Town is U2's Springsteen song.

One Tree Hill

Although written as a tribute to a Maori roadie, Greg Carroll, who died in 1986, this song has its own quite distinct role to play in the narrative of the album. The vocal starts muted, almost restrained so that the guitar, burbling away like a stream, appears to be gently nudging us to listen to yet another bout of sub-preaching from our interlocutor.

He deploys simple analogies – "the river runs to the sea," "One Tree Hill" (the True Cross?) – before finally working himself up into frenzied, yelping preacher mode. From this we get a sense that our guilt-ridden, broken-dreamed, ex-GI protagonist is toying with the idea of finding salvation by becoming a full-time preacher, but as the next song reveals there is one important thing that is missing: Faith.


A sinister opening that mimics the way that black moods steal upon us, "Exit" in its dark intensity is an emotional reprise of Bullet the Blue Sky. A man with this much blackness in his soul, can never be a preacher, or even take comfort from the words of one. The flashback and nightmares once again break out, but there is something even more unsettling.

While Bullet suggests participation in collective guilt – possibly a massacre committed in the name of American imperialism – Exit has individualized this to a murder. All this time we have been travelling across a nation founded on murder and betrayal in the company of one who has himself murdered and betrayed. In the light of the paradox floated earlier in With or Without You, this makes grim sense, as murder would be the only solution to the predicament of not being able to live with or without someone – those we murder can never leave us.

Murderous intent is also revealed by the lyrics: "A hand in the pocket/ Fingering the steel/ The pistol weighed heavy/ His heart he could feel/ was beating, beating, beating, beating, beating/ Oh my love..."

This is backed up by the Edge's guitar, which has a brutal, excoriating feel, like a murderer desperately trying to erase traces of his crime. Like a good thriller, this denouement comes late in the album, but immediately resonates and makes sense of much that has gone before. We now understand why the narrator has been making this journey, which we as listener/ hitchhiker have tagged along on. It is both a quest and a flight from a sense of guilt and horror. But he who runs from himself can never escape, so perhaps what we are listening to here is also the sonic equivalent of a suicide.

Mothers of the Disappeared

After such an emotional journey of desire, violence, guilt, and despair, the album needs a suitable coda to bring about "closure." This is the function the final track. Ostensibly written as a softly throbbing paean to the mothers of political dissidents arrested and killed by repressive Latin American states, it becomes something more universal, serving as an invocation of the "Great Mother" that bears us all and washes our final wounds in its deep embrace. The Earth endures and forgives the violence we commit against it. This is the psychic epic that The Joshua Tree unleashes, a tale of man's struggle against the universe and himself.

This sounds a tad pretentious and some will think that I am reading too much into a "simple rock album," especially as U2 have not explained the album in these terms, but works of art often have a life and will of their own, beyond that of their creators. The validity of any such explanation is the degree to which it can explain the parts and unify them into a totality. If this can be done, then you have found the true spirit of the thing.

The Revenge of Riff Raff

3rd of September, 2014

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