Album review: U2 — The Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary “Super Deluxe” Edition (4-CD)

Three decades after its original release, U2's ode to America remains as compelling and relevant as ever.

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of U2's iconic album The Joshua Tree. Released on March 9th 1987, The Joshua Tree saw the Irish rock band make the transition from selling out mid-sized arenas, to the biggest band on the planet. In fact such was the popularity of the record (particularly its lead single “With or Without You”) upon release, that it became the fastest-selling album in U.S. chart history.

Three decades later, The Joshua Tree remains one of the most enduringly popular albums in the history of modern popular music. In 2014 The Joshua Tree was deemed so culturally significant that the U.S. Library of Congress selected it (alongside the Jeff Buckley version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”) for preservation in the National Recording Registry.

Earlier this year, U2 announced The Joshua Tree Tour — a new world tour that would see the band play the record in full for the first time. Alongside this new tour, the band also announced that they would release a new four-disc “Super Deluxe” version of The Joshua Tree on June 2, 2017. With this latest reissued version of The Joshua Tree now available, it feels like an appropriate time to ask the question: Is The Joshua Tree still as compelling and relevant today as it was upon release in March 1987?

Having revisited The Joshua Tree via the recently-released 4-CD 30th Anniversary edition, I can definitively say that it remains an outstanding album. With its mix of memorable guitar hooks and socially-conscious lyrics, it’s a record that has essentially defined music lovers’ expectations of what defines a “U2 album”. The success of The Joshua Tree has also gone on to inspire a generation of similar music acts such as Coldplay and Snow Patrol.

The Joshua Tree opens with the track “Where the Streets Have No Name”. Driven by a chugging guitar riff that powers along like a freight train, “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a track that conjures up visions of America. Surprisingly though the song’s core message — one that imagines a society free from a social class structure — is not derived from the so-called “American Dream”; but rather from an anecdote told to Bono that in Belfast, Northern Ireland a person’s standard of living can be determined based on their postcode. Taking this inital concept, the band’s chief songwriter Bono calls upon images of the dustbowl to imagine a fictional and idealised version of America.

This romanticised ideal of America informs much of The Joshua Tree. Prior to the recording of The Joshua Tree, U2 had spent five months touring the United States. With their Irish roots and a radio-friendly sound, American audiences greeted the band with open arms, leading U2 to view the country as a “promised land” of sorts.

Despite this acceptance from their U.S. fansbase, U2 never truly forgot their roots. As immigrants, the band virwed themselves as “outsiders” in a syrange land. And it is this status as “outsiders” also allowed the group to provide their own critique of Ameica, and plays a huge role in defining the sound of The Joshua Tree. On the track “Bullet the Blue Sky”, guitarist the Edge uses a slide guitar to great effect to conjure up images of bombs being savagely dropped (presumably on innocent civilians). 30 years later, “Bullet the Blue Sky” has gained even greater significance as the world pays close to attention to American foreign policy under Donald Trump.

These two conflicting views of America and the “American Dream” repeatedly clash over the course of The Joshua Tree’s 11 tracks, and can arguably be best seen on the band’s most well-known song — “With or Without You”. Originally written about Bono’s inner turmoil over juggling his commitments as a husband with his duties as part of U2, tbe tension at the heart of “With or Without You” can also be used to describe the band’s feelings regarding their success in America as they recorded The Joshua Tree. The fact that listeners can interpret multiple meanings from songs such as “With or Without You” perfectly demonstrates how U2 had developed a knack for writing songs that spoke emptionally to a wider audience by the time of The Joshua Tree.

Outside of the original recording of The Joshua Tree, he three bonus disks that come as part of this 30th anniversary boxsets contain a treasure trove of material for fans of U2. Discs three and four of this latest reissued of The Joshua Tree consists of several remixes, B-side and musical outtakes that should satiate the appetite of even the most die-hard of U2 fans. And while these discs are certainly enjoyable, they feel somewhat superfluous (especially when you consider the fourth disc of B-sides/outtakes was originally released as part of the 2007 reissue of The Joshua Tree).

So while the final two discs included in the “Super Deluxe” reissue of The Joshua Tree are somewhat disappointing, disc two of this set is a must-have for U2 fans. This disc is an (albeit incomplete) recording of the band’s Madison Square Garden show from the original Joshua Tree tour. U2 have always been known for their formidable reputation as a live act, and this second disc on The Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary CD set provides a fascinating look at a band in transition. This is particularly the case with some of the band’s most well-known songs e.g. “With or Without You”, “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, as the versions found here offer an insight into how U2 have experimented with these tracks in a live environment over the years. And on a personal note, I also really enjoyed getting the opportunity to hear some of the U2's lesser-known songs e.g. “Running to Stand Still”, “One Tree Hill”, and “Party Girl” in a live setting.

At the start of this blog post, I asked the question whether or not U2’s The Joshua Tree has remained relevant after 30 years. With its mix of FM radio-friendly rock songs, and politically-motivated lyrics, The Joshua Tree remains a masterpiece of modern music that had lost none of its potency thirty years ago.

As for whether I would recommend this four-disc “Super Deluxe” edition of The Joshua Tree, I would advise most people to instead pick up the two-disc version of the record. This version gives music fans a copy of the 2011 remaster of The Joshua Tree, as well as the recording of U2's 1987 concert from Madison Square Garden that comes bundled as part of this “Super Deluxe” release. Irrespective of which version of The Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary reissue you’re considering, you’re in for an absolute treat!

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