The stakes are enormous, and U2 knows it. Its last album, The Unforgettable Fire, contained "Pride (In the Name of Love)," its biggest-selling single ever, and last year the band was the musical heart of Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope tour. Now, it seems, U2 is poised to rise from the level of mere platinum groups to the more rarefied air above. For a band that's always specialized in inspirational, larger-than-life gestures — a band utterly determined to be Important — The Joshua Tree could be the big one, and that's precisely what it sounds like.
That's not to say that this record is either a flagrantly commercial move or another Born in the U.S.A. The Joshua Tree is U2's most varied, subtle and accessible album, although it doesn't contain any sure-fire smash hits. But in its musical toughness and strong-willed spirituality, the album lives up to its namesake: a hardy, twisted tree that grows in the rocky deserts of the American Southwest. A Mormon legend claims that their early settlers called the Joshua tree "the praying plant" and thought its gnarled branches suggested the Old Testament prophet Joshua pointing the way to the Promised Land. The title befits a record that concerns itself with resilience in the face of utter social and political desolation, a record steeped in religious imagery.
Since U2 emerged from Dublin in 1980 with a bracing brand of hard, emotional, guitar-oriented rock, its albums have followed a pattern. The first and third (Boy and War) were muscular and assertive, full of, respectively, youthful bravado and angry social awareness; the second and fourth studio albums (October and The Unforgettable Fire) were moody and meandering and sometimes longer on ideas than on full-fledged songs.
But The Joshua Tree isn't an outright return to the fire of War. The band ruled that out years ago: Songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and "New Year's Day" hit with driving force on the 1983 album and subsequent tour. But U2 saw itself in danger of becoming just another sloganeering arena-rock band, so the group closed that chapter with a live record and video. The band swapped longtime producer Steve Lillywhite for Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois and, with The Unforgettable Fire, declared its intention to no longer be as relentlessly heroic.
On the new album, U2 retains Eno and Lanois, brings back Lillywhite to mix four songs and weds the diverse textures of The Unforgettable Fire to fully formed songs, many of them as aggressive as the hits on War. U2's sonic trademarks are here: the monumental angst of Bono's voice, the driving pulse of Adam Clayton's bass and Larry Mullen Jr.'s drums and the careening wail of the Edge's guitar. But for every predictably roaring anthem there's a spare, inventively arranged tune, such as "With or Without You," a rock & roll bolero that builds from a soothing beginning to a resounding climax.
The band still falls into some old traps: Bono's perpetually choked-up voice can sound overwrought and self-important; some of the images (fire and rain, say) start to lose their resonance after a dozen or so uses; and "Exit," a recited psychodrama about a killer, is awkward enough to remind you that not even Patti Smith could regularly pull off this sort of thing.
More than any other U2 album, though, The Joshua Tree has the power and allure to seduce and capture a mass audience on its own terms. Without making a show of its eclecticism, it features assertive rock ("Where the Streets Have No Name"), raw frenzy ("Bullet the Blue Sky"), delicacy ("One Tree Hill"), chugging rhythms ("I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For") and even acoustic bluesiness ("Running to Stand Still") — all of it unmistakably U2.
But if this is a breakthrough, it's a grim, dark-hued one. At first, refreshingly honest, romantic declarations alternate with unsettling religious imagery. Then things get blacker. The raging, melodramatic "Bullet the Blue Sky" ties Biblical fire and brimstone with American violence overseas and at home. In the stomping, harmonicaspiked rocker "Trip Through Your Wires," what looks like salvation could easily be evil seduction; "One Tree Hill" is a soft, haunting benediction on a U2 crew member who died in a motorcycle accident; and "Red Hill Mining Town" echoes Peter Gabriel's "Don't Give Up" in its unsparing look at personal relationships savaged by economic hardship — here, the aftermath of the largely unsuccessful British miners' strike of 1984.
But for all its gloom, the album is never a heavy-handed diatribe. After the first few times through "Running to Stand Still," for instance, you notice the remarkable music: the wholly unexpected blues slide guitar, the soft, Nebraska-style yelps, the ghostly harmonica. It sounds like a lovely, peaceful reverie — except that this is a junkie's reverie, and when that realization hits home, the gentle acoustic lullaby acquires a corrosive power that recalls "Bad," from the last LP.
The Joshua Tree is an appropriate response to these times, and a picture bleaker than any U2 has ever painted: a vision of blasted hopes, pointless violence and anguish. But this is not a band to surrender to defeatism. Its last album ended with a gorgeous elegy to Martin Luther King Jr.; The Joshua Tree closes with a haunting ode to other victims. "Mothers of the Disappeared" is built around desolate images of loss, but the setting is soothing and restorative — music of great sadness but also of unutterable compassion, acceptance and calm. The Unforgettable Chill, you might call this album, and unforgettable is certainly the right word.