How U2's 'The Joshua Tree' Already Understood America's Turmoil 30 Years Ago

The often-maligned band's most famous album is a relevant critique of America as a false prophet.

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Mar 7 2017, 4:36pm

Album cover photo by Anton Corbijn

"You plant a demon seed / You raise a flower of fire / See them burning crosses / See the flames, higher and higher." Bono is howling these words on stage in Sydney in 1993. U2 is painted by ultraviolet red light midway through The Joshua Tree cut  "Bullet the Blue Sky" on their multimedia-overload Zoo TV Tour. With a chaotic guitar drone ringing out, the lights dim, everything falling still save for images of burning crosses behind the band. Suddenly, they bend into an unmistakable symbol of hate: the swastika. Bono pleads to the crowd, exasperated: "Don't let it happen again."

Nobody could've predicted The Joshua Tree would see its 30 anniversary at a time when swastikas once again violate places of sanctuary. The 1987 movie star president Ronald Reagan gave way to the 2017 reality TV president Donald Trump, his gospel a far more toxic brand of nationalism invoking the Bible while provoking Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. These seeds informed the soil of Make America Great Again, a dangerous idea that almost makes sense. It's a grave full-circle moment that even U2 came to recognise, but what makes their landmark album relevant 30 years later is not having another celebrity president in power as contrast. Underneath the anthems of The Joshua Tree lies a vital critique of America as false prophet: greed bleeding into violence, myth invalidated by truth, and its promise as empty as its deserts.

By the mid 80s, U2 were already an arena act in America with a live album at Red Rocks in Colorado behind them. Bono's spontaneous leap into the crowd at Live Aid cemented their reputation as a band willing to go to any lengths to connect with fans, from a self-aggrandizing documentary to iTunes library takeover. While the love between U2 and America at the time was mutual, the band grew far more critical of the country during the ideation of The Joshua Tree. On tour, U2 took to blues and roots music by way of both American public radio and budding relationships with Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, and Van Morrison. Bono and The Edge credited the influence of American writers whose straightforward prose detailed the landscape including Ralph Ellison, Truman Capote, and Flannery O'Connor, inspiring the band to make a cinematic production that conjures images centred on the American desert. You can hear it in the after-hours coal worker guitar picking of "Red Hill Mining Town," the rhythmic "In God's Country" evoking a moving train, the nighttime hum and crickets of "Exit." No song is more visceral than "Bullet the Blue Sky" with its sudden guitar drone streaking through the air like a fighter plane.

Reagan is the antagonist of "Bullet the Blue Sky": his face red as a rose on a thorn bush, peeling dollar bills to fund proxy wars, all while women and children run into the arms of America—the country-as-televangelist—promising salvation while fuelling the raining hellfire on their homes. It's all too easy to see Trump in his place, marvelling his ill-won fortune as it continues to shape his acts as president. At the time, Bono was inspired by travels to Nicaragua and El Salvador with Amnesty International. He witnessed the consequences of military intervention under Reagan's America during the Central American crisis. It was an era of backing anything-but-Communist forces that suppressed civilian revolutions through intimidation and bloodshed, military planes looming, money flowing, bodies often thrown into the street. "Bullet the Blue Sky" is a seismic shift from the opening anthems of  "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For," and "With or Without You," revealing the American dream is a lie—the desert a metaphor for moral and spiritual drought. 

"Dream beneath a desert sky / The rivers run but soon run dry / We need new dreams tonight," Bono sings on "In God's Country," a cry for the urgency of new political movements. America's Lady Liberty is described as a siren who offers promises with no warning of their danger. Trump likewise tempted the American public to buy into his outrageous claims, playing on insecurities of status that voters came to regret later. Women, the desert, and spiritual doubt also intertwine on the ethereal Infinite Guitar wail of "With or Without You," the jaunty Dylanesque harmonica-led "Trip Through Your Wires," and the vast gospel of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." These allusions reflect their conflicted feelings towards America's falsehoods. "It's [Americans'] openness which leads them to trust a man as dangerous as Ronald Reagan. They want to believe he's a good guy. They want to believe he's in the cavalry, coming to rescue America's reputation," Bono told Hot Press in 1987. "But he was only an actor. It was only a movie. I think the picture's ended now and Americans are leaving the cinema a little down in the mouth."

That dissatisfaction erupts on the seething murder ballad "Exit," proving itself a warning of how far fanaticism in faith can go. "You know he got the cure / But then he went astray / He used to stay awake / To drive the dreams he had away / He wanted to believe / In the hands of love," Bono sings about the hands that built America. What started as a live jam between The Edge, Larry Mullen Jr., and Adam Clayton took on the character of a hunt evoking Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game," dark bass hum swinging into violent, crashing drums and back again as the killer caresses his pistol. "Exit" contrasts the violence of American politics with the violence within ourselves, an especially relevant parallel given Islamophobic hate crimes have surged. As the song concludes, "So hands that build / Can also pull down."

If "Exit' is The Joshua Tree's heart of darkness, "Mothers of the Disappeared" is its twilight . A menacing, processed drum loop is overcome by the tenderness of a Spanish guitar, a tribute to the Asociación Madres de Plaza de Mayo and other mothers who organized to find victims of forced disappearance under military dictatorship including General Augusto Pinochet, a regime that America supported to overthrow Chile's democratically-elected socialist government. At their first concert in Chile in 1998, U2 invited the mothers on stage, pleading with Pinochet to tell them where their loved ones rest. Pinochet would finally be arrested for his human rights violations that year, America's role in his rise to power—and cruelty— in the shadows.

Given its romantic lament over paradoxes within the country, it's not surprising The Joshua Tree's working title was The Two Americas. Dream and lie. Civilization and desert. Myth and real. Its newfound meaning in Trump's America halted U2 in their tracks, postponing their upcoming album to revisit The Joshua Tree on tour. In U2 by U2, Adam Clayton explains the record's black and white cover depicts the band as displaced European immigrants seeking refuge in America. U2's perspective was to the record's benefit; their outsider fascination with Americana giving way to their first number one album in the US and best-selling record to date before bloating on Rattle and Hum, the catalyst for their reinvention in the 90s.

The Joshua Tree came to define the album as a shooting idea by U2's longtime photographer Anton Corbijn. Its shape and name take after the Biblical figure Joshua, arms outstretched in prayer, but what's most poetic about the Joshua tree is that it's designed to thrive in the most barren land. Just like its namesake, The Joshua Tree stands not only as a reflection of brutality, but as a symbol of resolve of heightened relevance today, a will to live and let live even in a climate of drought.

Jill Krajewski sincerely loves U2. Follow her on Twitter.