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U2 - 'The Joshua Tree' (Deluxe Edition)   Print  E-mail 
Written by Mark Reed  
Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Glorify the Past when the Future dries up?

10 years ago, U2 celebrated the first decade of “The Joshua Tree” by releasing a record they described as “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree” : the second decade of this record was instead met by a more respectful archive package. For the first time, U2 have gone back on themselves and re-released an expanded, deluxe edition of a record. It’s a frustrating experience, of both great value and immense missed opportunities.

No one in the world quite understands the power of their catalogue the way U2 do. At a certain point, around the release of “the Best Of 1980-1990” and the relative commercial failure of the 10,000,000 selling “Pop” album, U2 took a step back. Whilst bravely proclaiming to be ‘reapplying for the job of best band in the world’, no one can deny that the U2 of the past decade has been, artistically relatively safe : releasing three Best-Of compilations, and carefully rehashing their past with a haphazard selection of old concert videos onto DVD whilst still touring the world and releasing new stuff. Thankfully, they currently avoid the Global Jukebox approach of The Rolling Stones… but it isn’t by any means an impossibility.

At the time of it’s release, U2 ruled the world : they sold out arenas (and later stadiums) in the blink of an eye. Their every utterance was greeted as if it were The Word Of God. And this was hardly helped by “The Joshua Tree” itself.

Viewed from a two decade remove, the album is, to put it bluntly, both U2’s masterwork and overblown, histronic, patronising pomp. At almost every step that the band have where they could choose to step back and use a little less, Bono decides to go overblown with a gut-wrenching straining-for-the-stars vocal, occasionally obvious lyrics that aren’t half as brilliant as their author obviously thinks they are (on the basis of the import he delivers them with), and occasionally Bono becomes an irritating King Of The Obvious. America Bad! Drugs Bad! War Bad! God Is Good! Yay! Capitalism Is Evil! Abduction Bad! Torture Boo! Harmonica Solos? Yay!

What The Joshua Tree lacks in lyrical subtlety, it makes up in impact. Bono never quite goes as far as Oliver Stone in his obviousness, but for this record he is no great artist at the height of his lyrical mastery.

This is not necessarily the fault of the record though, but of the time when Simple Minds and The Alarm ruled the world. The 80’s inspired some terrible footballers haircuts, and some awful Saving-the-world-War-is-bad-Amercia-is-big-mmmmmmmmmmmmmkay sloganeering, and above it all, through the album U2 seem to really mean it maaaaaaan, like Johnny Rotten without the sense of self-aware irony.

The only exception from this widescreen pomp is The Edges guitar solo in “With Or Without You”, which is a simple three chord strum. There’s also, throughout the whole record, no sense of fun : “The Joshua Tree” is a pious, po-faced lesson in world politics delivered by a millionaire.

musically, it’s a fine rock record. Possibly the best example of its type and of it’s time. At the height of these powers, U2 could eclipse Springsteen for passion and feeling and looking like scruffy construction workers who happened to have accidentally become the biggest band in the world. And the songs? Some of them are classic by any standard - the poignant “With Or Without You”, the rip-the-roof-off-heaven surge of “Where The Streets Have No Name”. But for every euphoric rush, there’s the comedown of the morning after : the poked-with-a-stick-lecture of “Bullet The Blue Sky”, the aimless ramble that is “Trip Through Your Wires”. No, “The Joshua Tree” isn’t perfect - then again, I’m one of the few that regards their postmodern experiments of 1990-1999 as an artistic highpoint. It’s a great record, but not necessarily one that has stood the test of time particularly well.

The second disc is comprised of chronologically arranged b-sides (most of which have already appeared on the 1980-1990 B-Sides compilation), alongside a handful of unreleased songs. Purists could argue, quite rightly, that the absence of “Jesus Christ”, “Babys Coming Home”, “Maggies Farm” and the rarely heard performed-once-on-Irish-TV “Womanfish”, as well as several other leaked demos from the period, mean that this release is certainly far from comprehensive or complete. That said, the breadth of material makes an essential bookend for the U2 fan curious to hear the band at work. The newly completed “Wave Of Sorrow” somehow manages to combine both the earnestness of the era with the more modern approach from the band, but sounds curiously disjointed.

The final part - and the big draw - is the previously unreleased DVD. It comprises a full length concert DVD taken from a 1987 TV broadcast. Recorded onto video and in 2.0, the concert is lacking the kind of high end technical specs the audio/video snobs clamour for, but is a faithful reproduction of  a concert on the tour, warts and all. For copyright reasons, the concert misses it’s opening track (a cover version), but otherwise reflects a comprehensive 2 hour width of U2 live. It’s miles away from the polished sheen of “Rattle & Hum” and the uber hi-def 5.1 overload of recent DVD standards - but that doesn’t detract from the viewers enjoyment of a full show from a classic era of the group. The DVD also contains several videos including previously-unavailable clips for “Red Hill Mining Town”, and a alternate version of “With Or Without You”. There’s also the rarely-seen “Outside It’s America”, which is a 50 minute documentary shown on British Television that follows the first leg of the 1987 US tour in the spring. In many ways, this documentary is a prototype of “Rattle And Hum” by mixing live footage, interviews and film verite with sadly obscure videos for “Spanish Eyes” and “In God’s Country”. It’s not a revelatory piece of film-making, but thankfully shows more of the band than the pious “Rattle And Hum”. In fact, if you think of the DVD as a superlative, no-holds-barred bonus disc  that “Rattle And Hum” should always have had, you can’t go wrong.

If anything though, this deluxe edition shows that U2 really should stop this process of slowly drip feeding material in expensive collectors editions and commence a proper (and prompt) reissue programme with a definitive, multi-part, epic career spanning documentary akin to The Beatles Anthology. Their highly complicated and convulted discography needs a decent bit of housekeeping and to finally, and properly, release the multitudes of rare material that exists in trading circles and on shelves in Ireland. Give the fans what you know they want and what they know you have.

Overall, this deluxe edition of “The Joshua Tree” is an essential purchase for any major U2 fan. Go straight for the mega-uber-book-box-DVD-and-2CD’s consumer feast version and binge on the wonderful excess of new material with several unreleased songs, a full concert, a documentary, and a fancy box full of stuff : anything less would be to do yourself a disservice.  


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