Classic Rock Canon - "The Joshua Tree", Part 2

I feel that I must apologize for my previous post about the U2 album The Joshua Tree. In contrast to my other 'Canon' posts, I apparently fell briefly into my reviewer headspace. Even in my prior rants about my most hated bands/musicians, I at least attempted to place those artists in the continuity of pop music development. Not so with this album. I will attempt to amend that mistake here.

The problem is, I'm not really sure how. In listening to the The Joshua Tree I had hoped to discover why it was not only beloved by people but also widely acclaimed by critics. It was brought up ad nauseum as a landmark record, and I fail to see why.

In terms of sound the record doesn't differ wildly from any other U2 album, and the few significant deviations that exist are rank and file for the album's producer, Brian Eno. When I listen to an album like "Heroes" (another Eno produced work, this time by David Bowie) I can understand why that album was so significant in a historical context. Albums such as those sound like nothing else from their period, and in certain cases they sound like nothing else at all.

The Joshua Tree was released in 1987 and, as far as I can see, fails to differ even from the band's own catalog. The more experimental aspects had been done by them before, specifically on 1984's The Unforgettable Fire. Every feature of the album I can put my eye too seems to be made by routine. It certainly doesn't express the 'Americana' ethos that the band hamhandedly shoved in via harmonicas and... crickets I suppose.

So what makes other albums significant? Sheer quality is rarely sufficient for anything more than good reviews; landmark albums generally blend genres, twisting their definitions. London Calling brought the ska influences of first-wave punk from subtext to text, Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds both broadened the scope of then current pop music to include avant-garde and heavy baroque influences, and Thriller similarly streamlined R&B, pop, and dance. The Joshua Tree does none of these things. It fails to merge blues or folk with the post-punk/arena rock embodied by U2, nor does it contain songs of particularly transcendental beauty/artistry. There's no edge (do ho ho) to it at all, which is probably what undercuts the blues influence. The blues, after all, is all about expressing emotion in the purest manner possible, which is impossible to achieve if you overproduce something (more on this in another post). This doesn't mean that you have to record blues music on old equipment (as Jack White appears to believe) but it does mean that you have to allow the musicians to express whatever it is they want to express. There has to be a sense of humanity to the music, and nowhere on The Joshua Tree do I see this.

Of course, there's another confound to this. Making blues music is impossible if you're not expressing something personal. Folk music can (and often does) express the ethos or zeitgeist of a time period, but blues is all about the story. That story can be allegorical, but it has to stand on its own. I think that's the real problem with The Joshua Tree, as U2 have consistently shied away from purely individual emotion. Their music is always big, not expressing things from the perspective of one person but rather from a universal or collective viewpoint. They don't make music about one person's emotions, but instead about peoples emotions/beliefs/whatever. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean that their music simply isn't suited for blues influences. And it also means that when they fail, they fail big. Case in point, The Joshua Tree.

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