It has been 25 years since the release of “The Joshua Tree,” the album that turned U2 from a respected band with Christian leanings into arena style rock stars. It is no secret that the release was a love-hate paean to the land of liberty. Still informed radically by a Christian ubuntu (I am because we are), but also fascinated by the freedoms afforded to Americans, “The Joshua Tree” remains one of U2’s most philosophical offerings. Unlike many other bands that took on philosophy and cause, there was also little mistake as to what the songs on “The Joshua Tree” referred to. Hewsen and company used real names and actual events to inspire their music. If one doesn’t know the inspiration for a song, they can go to a hundred different places online to get the meaning and most will be in agreement.
What has recently fascinated me is just how American and frontier like the album is. That too is well documented. Prior to the release of “The Joshua Tree” U2 had a proto-punk sound laden with spiritual messages. This album retained much of the spirituality, but it also drew heavily on American folk for musical influence. This appreciation for American music was matched with an appreciation for the landscape that inspired the music. Like American folk music or artists like Simon and Garfunkel or Neil Young, the music of “The Joshua Tree” is firmly rooted in a sense of place that was garnered by touring America . Hewson took to reading Norman Mailer and Flannery O’Connor to get an appreciation of the American consciousness and the band let the vast empty spaces leading to mountains and deserts speak to their music in what Paul McGuinness has called a “great romance with America .“ The American desert , in fact, became quite symbolic to the band and led to the album’s name and cover art.
It was this symbolic landscape that fueled a fascination with America, both good and bad. The desert came to represent those left behind by the American dream, but who were strong in spirit and the frontier ruggedness of the west came to represent American liberty, praised by Americans, but a mixed blessing to most of the world. To this day I cannot decide if “In God’s Country” does more to praise or chide the American concept of liberty.
A big problem in the American imagination is how to fuse spirituality into the libertine landscape. As pioneers, mostly good and God fearing people, forged westward they went into places that had never seen a church and had little in the way of governance. They came into conflict with native peoples and were left at the mercy of an environment the likes of which they could never imagine. They must have been fascinated, but overwrought. It was a feeling not lost in “The Joshua Tree.”
As the eighties progressed, U2 turned their attention from their American fan base in the likes of Chicago, Boston, and New York (urban places with large Irish populations) to look at the “other half” of the American heritage built on concepts like liberty and the utter sovereignty of God. That story was much more in keeping with America, which had little use for monarchies or state churches. The United States was, after all, the place for people who could not get out of Europe quick enough. It was founded on a glorified tax revolt and the idea that God had granted to His creatures “certain inalienable rights among these life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The experiment worked for a while, but when the East had urbanized and became as regulated as Europe, American wanderlust kicked in as people searched for cheap land and economic opportunity away from the prying eyes of government officials. It was that story which formed the libertine ethos that resides to this day in the American imagination and it was the landscape of this ethos that gave rise to “The Joshua Tree,” even as the album itself did much to question that.
In a makeshift recording studio in the highlands of western Ireland, U2 forged ahead with their tour de force. They wanted to capture the geography of liberty and give it some praise, but not a free pass. The band certainly had Christian principles and they were not about ready to give that up in signing about America and its liberty. But you can’t write a romance for a place without being at least a little in love with it. Besides the United States is not exactly un-Christian. In fact it is much more so than U2’s Europe which for so long had a legalized and enforced Christianity that did little to value religious liberty. In search of the free exercise of religion not found in Europe, America beaconed to Catholics, Quakers, Puritans, and Deists. The band’s heritage itself grew out of Catholicism, sectarian Protestantism, and the Church of Ireland. It is little wonder they would choose to look at America, a land where all and no religion was tolerated, but also the place where unfettered freedom could led to the repression of the powerless, a huge problem to their Christian morality. “The Joshua Tree” took full aim at this liberty acknowledging both its beauty and its danger. Nowhere was the symbolism of this more evident than in the topography of American expansion so prevalent in the sound and imagery of “The Joshua Tree” where God’s grandeur, pioneer courage, and the displacement of Native Americans came together.
Liberty may have high praise for finding your own way, but you cannot be this way forever. Eventually you find yourself in that place where you “have to carry each other.” Hewsen, who sang those words on “One,” fell in love with the wide openness of America which attracted mystics and outlaws content to be on their own…..a place where it would be easy to see the landscape as a blank slate, so empty compared to so much of the world and so prone to being about the person alone without community. But you can’t go it alone and the irony is no place is that more apparent than the rugged geography that inspired “The Joshua Tree.”
Prospectors and mountain men would weary of being unloved, pioneer families would long that their children play with others, and God-fearing people would need their communities of faith. More importantly the human spirit needs that which is larger than itself. The geography of the United States points to this as does the Christian message not lost in “The Joshua Tree.” How better to symbolize this than to use a landscape that at once says be your own person and you’re not going to make it unless you “stick together and stay warm.” America may be about liberty, but one look at its grandeur and you know you will need God to get your through. And as you traverse its landscape you will also need your map makers, trailblazers, explorers, navigators, and companions. You realize at times you will be the strong protector of another even as at times you will need another’s strong protection. The fact that we can sometimes forget this is sinful indeed. It is why America was never totally let off the hook in the U2 album, which praised a nation that had so great a beauty as its geography and so rich a heritage as its liberty, even as it said to the nation not to ignore others or even worse to visit abuse on the innocent.
“The Joshua Tree” is worth a listen and being listened to again. The sound has more of an American feel and more relevance to the United States than almost anything released by a foreign band. It is one of those rare albums that addresses love in a broad and spiritual context and one that offers a social evaluation that is at once kind and critical. That it couches all of this in the land of liberty and the need to be critical of that same liberty makes “The Joshua Tree a place where human freedom and divine ordinance meet and nothing is more fitting to our liberty than this landscape.