I was 13 years old when I first discovered U2’s fifth album, The Joshua Tree. It was 2007; I had just picked up the guitar and was looking for trouble in my dad's CD collection. I didn't find it in The Joshua Tree—40 whole seconds before a guitar comes in? No thanks.
I turned to the band’s third album, War, where I found the volume and energy I was looking for in songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday," "New Years Day," and "Like A Song . . .” I was captivated by the aggression that came from these songs and lyrics that decried injustice. At the time I didn’t have any understanding of what The Troubles of Northern Ireland were, but through Bono’s righteous indignation I felt like I understood. I was learning what it meant to put anger and frustration into art through listening to War, and eventually I began to wonder: where does this anger go?
It was from this question that The Joshua Tree began to make sense to me. The first moments of The Joshua Tree—that 40-second organ intro that I originally hated—suggested a broader scope than the music I had been listening to at the time. The music on The Joshua Tree and its accompanying artwork suggested wide-open spaces that teased potential yet threatened something more sinister and desolate.
There was anger in the lyrics, but with it came a restlessness toward something bigger; The Joshua Tree saw religion, romance, economics, politics, death, and addiction all rolled up together and tossed to the wind of the unforgiving landscape of the desert.
With The Joshua Tree, U2’s eyes were turned most directly toward the America of the 1980s—an America that used a peace-through-strength mentality in its attempt to be the “city on a hill” to the rest of the world. U2 was willing to entertain the romanticized vision of America and the West—liberty, freedom, and the illusionary American dream—while at the same time showing the cracks and scars in this vision.
Songs like “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “Mothers of the Disappeared” juxtaposed the dismal human rights record of the Reagan administration’s foreign policies to the idyllic promises of the West, creating a palpable tension in what exactly it all meant. The Joshua Tree so effectively stands on the edge between America as glibly idealized and America as grimly actualized that when Bono declares in pointed spoken-word that he “sees the rain coming through a gaping wound/pelting the women and children/who run into the arms of America,” the listener is not sure whether it is refuge or harm that meets them there.
Despite the often-muddied reconciliation of vision and reality, The Joshua Tree brought one more crucial piece to its assessment of the West: hope. Throughout its 11 songs, The Joshua Tree sustains a vigorous and desperate yearning that contrasts boldly with its surrounding landscape. It is with images of rivers and desert flowers that The Joshua Tree leaves its biggest mark; the land is desolate and treacherous, but growth and nourishment persist.
In the 30 years that has followed The Joshua Tree, rock music has been a lot of places. U2’s next great achievement, 1991’s Achtung Baby, showcased the band’s ability to adapt to the changing environments of rock and rock criticism, adding a self-aware and ironic sense to a darker, but no less faithful album.
The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby established a model for what art made by Christians can be, but it is a model that has remained largely untouched in rock music since. The albums reached for new artistic heights, but also showcased an acute awareness of the world around it, reaching out with a faith-inflected lens while mourning its broken reality—a model that I would argue is biblical given books like Psalms, Ecclesiastes, and Amos. This does not seem to be a lasting lesson that other rock artists who are Christians took to heart, as the bands most considered to be of the U2 ilk today are not nearly as bold or attentive.
Instead, rock music made by Christians has fallen into something far safer. Instead of the provocation of a declaration like, “this song is about military operations and the disregard for human rights in El Salvador and Nicaragua,” we have, “this song is about injustice.” The Christian rock musicians who are talking about real problems are doing so in a choose-your-own-adventure sort of way that allows listeners to fill their own beliefs into the song—neither pushing nor challenging anyone. Why is it so difficult to imagine bands like Needtobreathe or Switchfoot writing a song that directly reacts to issues like the Black Lives Matter movement?
I believe the responsibility lies with both the artists and the audience: Christian consumers and artists have established a bubble in which we assume the world’s problems are not our own, something Scripture makes clear is not true. Rock music made by Christians is not fully responding to the world created by God or acting on the reconciliatory work of Christ, and it seems that any “outsider” status a band has in Christian music is more of a marketing strategy than it is an artistic ambition or challenge.
The Joshua Tree is an album that has had a lasting impact. Situated snugly in the broad history of honest, engaging rock music and as the gold standard for what Christians can do with art, The Joshua Tree has endured these 30 years with grace. Its view of America seems prophetic in retrospect, as both its hope and its warnings of unchecked nationalism have been validated by history. And this accuracy continues, as many of the album’s sentiments echo the loudest today amidst America’s current uncertainties.
Nearly 10 years ago, The Joshua Tree showed me the same thing it showed millions 30 years ago: that the human experience is desolate, doomed, and beautiful all at once and warrants cries of anger, cries for help, and cries of rejoicing. It showed me that to be human is to bend and break with fellow humans, and above all it showed me what hope is. It still shows me that. (Island)