It has become fashionable in recent years to deride U2, something cemented by their ill-advised placing of their lackluster new album on everyone's iPhones. It is easy to forget they from 1983 to the dawn of grunge they were one of the few rock acts making interesting music getting played on Top 40 radio amidst the morass of hair metal. I recently gave The Joshua Tree a fresh listen, and was surprised at how good it still sounds almost thirty years later.
Most people know the hits, like "Where The Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" and "With Or Without You." I first had the album on tape, and I came close to wearing out the first side (the one with all the hits), which is one of the strongest first sides to any album I can think of. The second side does not have any hits, and certainly has fewer hooks. Without the hooks, the depression that Bono was in at the time was much easier to see. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" is a song about failing to find meaning in life, but it is so good as pop music that you don't really think about the undertones.
Of all the second-side songs, my favorite is "In God's Country," referencing the term some use to describe the vast deserts in the American West. I also take it to be a bit of commentary on the United States more generally, which was the big inspiration for the album, as a place of spiritual emptiness. It has one of those beautifully understated yet up-tempo guitar parts from The Edge, more reminiscent of The Unforgettable Fire than the more bombastic Joshua Tree. That fast yet faded sound perfectly matches the song's evocation of the desert.
I distinctly remember going on a short family vacation to the Niobrara River in northern Nebraska not long after I bought the album. To get there we drove through the gorgeously vast and empty Sandhills. As I heard "In God's Country" on my Walkman with the landscape rushing by, I knew exactly what the song's inspiration had been. I laid my head against the window and closed my eyes with the hot sun still visible behind my eyelids as Bono sang "Sleep comes like a drug/ In God's country." Mock U2 all you want, but that kind of transcendence does not come around very often.