The Joshua Tree: The ultimate playlist

by Geoffrey Morrissey / Beacon Staff • March 30, 2017

It is tough for the modern music consumer to imagine life without playlists. As Beacon Spotify Curator, this gives me both a sense of satisfaction and job security. But the more that I think about the playlist, the more I think, Isn’t an album, in a way, a playlist? A playlist is defined as a group of tunes that should be listened to together. And in theory, any album that a band releasesshould also be a group of songs that are meant to be listened to together. However, since CDs allowed listeners to skip easily between tracks, and as online music services allow users to play individual songs, the importance of a strong album has dwindled. Today, most albums are merely a shuffled collection of singles, with a few B-sides and outtakes thrown in to meet a length requirement.  

In the 1980s, when the record thrived, a band from Dublin put together a collection of songs that will be incredibly difficult for any band or aux-cord DJ to top. You may be familiar with the collection of songs I am referring to—it’s an album called the Joshua Tree, by the widely applauded U2. Although U2 certainly was not the first, or the last, band to create a cohesive, semi-conceptual album, records of this caliber are rarely seen. The work just turned 30, and in honor of its birthday, we should take a moment to examine just how brilliant it was. 

If today’s bands want to try and go back to making solid, well thought-out records, they should look to the Joshua Tree as an example. And they should start by observing the carefully chosen words of preeminent poet of rock and roll, Bono. Made In 1987, when the USA and the U.K. were under the administrations of Reagan and Thatcher, the record addresses Bono’s frustrations with the policies and ideals of both administrations. The album’s title is a reference to one of America’s largest deserts, with the image and theme of the desert meaning to represent America’s “spiritual emptiness,” according to Bono. 

One of the masterful parts of this record in particular, is how U2’s frontman is able to create a narrative in his songs that brings a human face to the decisions made by governments around the world, but the U.S. government in particular. The album’s first track, “Where the Streets Have No Name,” does just that. Overall, it’s a minimalistic song with a large sound. The modern American listener will be able to connect—it tells the story of two people trying to build a large, vast space (some might say a country), defined not by borders, or by the characteristics of citizens, but by love, mutual understanding, and companionship. Even this song, one of the least overtly political on the record, still rings strikingly true today.

Whether or not you agree with Bono’s assessment of America and its policies, you can still find this album profound—one, because it’s easy to just ignore the political commentary, and two, because this record is emotionally spot on. No song embodies this more than “With or Without You,” my personal favorite track on the album, and one that is often misinterpreted. Many view the lyrics as an address to a lover that causes both intense joy and intense pain, as suggested by the chorus’ signature lyric, “I can’t live / With or without you.” However, the lyric and the whole concept of the song is much more substantive—the now legendary chorus actually describes the challenges of being both a rockstar and a family man. No matter how much he loves being a frontman, he hates being away from his wife and kids. It is an intense exploration of identity, with Bono coming to the conclusion that he is not one or the other, but a product of the tension that those two personas create. 

Lyrically, musically, and thematically, the Joshua Tree is easily U2’s best piece of work. From the tracks that define their catalogue, to the B-sides and outtakes, it seems that practically every song from these sessions are of the highest quality. Thirty years later, it’s time that audiences revisit this poignant and thought-provoking record. Luckily, U2 is hitting the road with the Lumineers and Mumford and Sons this summer to play the record in its entirety. U2 and their fans realize that these songs still resonate—emotionally and politically—with our generation. This album deserves to be heard by crowds of fans, both old, and especially, new.