The Joshua Tree is the fifth studio album by rock band U2. It was produced by Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno, and was released on 9 March 1987 on Island Records. In contrast to the ambient experimentation of their 1984 release The Unforgettable Fire, U2 aimed for a harder-hitting sound on The Joshua Tree within the limitation of strict song structures. The album is influenced by American and Irish roots music and depicts the band's love-hate relationship with the United States, with socially and politically conscious lyrics embellished with spiritual imagery.
Inspired by American tour experiences, literature, and politics, U2 chose America as a theme for the record. Recording began in January 1986 in Ireland, and to foster a relaxed, creative atmosphere, the group recorded in two houses, in addition to two professional studios. Several events during the sessions helped shape the conscious tone of the album, including the band's participation in A Conspiracy of Hope tour, the death of roadie Greg Carroll, and lead vocalist Bono's travels to Central America. Recording was completed in November and additional production continued into January 1987. Throughout the sessions, U2 sought a "cinematic" quality for the record that would evoke a sense of location, in particular, the open spaces of America. They represented this in the sleeve photography depicting them in American desert landscapes.
The album received critical acclaim, topped the charts in over 20 countries, and sold in record-breaking numbers. According to Rolling Stone, the album increased the band's stature "from heroes to superstars". It produced the hit singles "With or Without You", "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For", and "Where the Streets Have No Name". The album won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year and Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal in 1988. The group supported the record with the successful Joshua Tree Tour. Frequently cited as one of the greatest albums in rock history, The Joshua Tree is one of the world's all-time best-selling albums, with over 25 million copies sold. In 2007, U2 released a 20th anniversary remastered edition of the record.
Before The Joshua Tree, U2 had released four studio albums and were an internationally successful band, particularly as a live act having toured every year in the 1980s. The group's stature and the public's anticipation for a new album grew following their 1984 record The Unforgettable Fire, their subsequent tour, and their participation in Live Aid in 1985. U2 began writing new material in mid-1985 following the Unforgettable Fire Tour.
Band manager Paul McGuinness recounted that The Joshua Tree originated from the band's "great romance" with the United States, as the group had toured the country for up to five months per year in the first half of the 1980s. In the lead up to the album sessions, lead vocalist Bono had been reading the works of American writers such as Norman Mailer, Flannery O'Connor, and Raymond Carver so as to understand, in the words of Hot Press editor Niall Stokes, "those on the fringes of the promised land, cut off from the American dream". Following a 1985 humanitarian visit to Ethiopia with his wife Ali, Bono said, "Spending time in Africa and seeing people in the pits of poverty, I still saw a very strong spirit in the people, a richness of spirit I didn't see when I came home... I saw the spoiled child of the Western world. I started thinking, 'They may have a physical desert, but we've got other kinds of deserts.' And that's what attracted me to the desert as a symbol of some sort."
In 1985, Bono participated in Steven Van Zandt's anti-apartheid Sun City project and spent time with Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. When Richards and Jagger played blues, Bono was embarrassed by his lack of familiarity with the genre, as most of U2's musical knowledge began with punk rock in their youth in the mid-1970s. Bono realised that U2 "had no tradition", and he felt as if they "were from outer space". This inspired him to write the blues-influenced song "Silver and Gold", which he recorded with Richards and Ronnie Wood. Until that time, U2 had been antipathetic towards roots music, but after spending time with The Waterboys and fellow Irish band Hothouse Flowers, they felt a sense of indigenous Irish music blending with American folk music. Nascent friendships with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Richards encouraged U2 to look back to rock's roots and focused Bono on his skills as a songwriter and lyricist. He explained, "I used to think that writing words was old-fashioned, so I sketched. I wrote words on the microphone. For The Joshua Tree, I felt the time had come to write words that meant something, out of my experience." Dylan told Bono of his own debt to Irish music, while Bono further demonstrated his interest in music traditions in his duet with Irish Celtic and folk group Clannad on the track "In a Lifetime".
The band wanted to build on the textures of The Unforgettable Fire, but in contrast to that record's often out-of-focus experimentation, they sought a harder-hitting sound within the limitations of stricter song structures. The group referred to this approach as working within the "primary colours" of rock music-guitar, bass, and drums. Guitarist The Edge was more interested in the European atmospherics of The Unforgettable Fire and was initially reluctant to follow the lead of Bono, who, inspired by Dylan's instruction to "go back", sought a more American, bluesy sound. Despite not having a consensus on musical direction, the group members agreed that they felt disconnected from the dominant synthpop and New Wave music of the time, and they wanted to continue making music that contrasted with these genres. In late 1985, U2 moved to drummer Larry Mullen, Jr.'s newly purchased home to work on material written during The Unforgettable Fire Tour. This included demos that would evolve into "With or Without You", "Red Hill Mining Town", "Trip Through Your Wires", and a song called "Womanfish". The Edge recalled it as a difficult period with a sense of "going nowhere", although Bono was set on America as a theme for the album.
It's hard to imagine these days, but at one time the world didn’t belong to Paul 'Bono' Hewson and his pals. By 1987 the band had undoubtedly become stadium”“fillers in Europe, but it was America that was their heartland, and they were on the verge of cracking it wide open.
Having already establishing their cavernous sound with producer Steve Lillywhite, by 1984 The Unforgettable Fire had the band opting for the more ambient (and subtle) team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. It was a canny move that both allowed them more space to emote in the studio and also perfectly suited the student population in the States, reared on FM radio.
In time-honoured fashion the band toured the US like madmen, and by 1987 the bands' American citizenship-by-osmosis had magically occurred. The Joshua Tree's songs augmented their political stance with bigger subjects such as right-wing intervention in El Salvador (''Bullet The Blue Sky'') and the Mothers Of The Plaza De Mayo in Argentina (''Mothers Of The Disappeared'') In other words, even if the world didn’t yet know it, U2 were now a global brand.
But it wasn’t mere posturing. The Joshua Tree, with its black and white Anton Corbijn sleeve set in Death Valley was a truly widescreen experience. The Edge's arpeggios (here used to great effect on the opener, Adam Clayton's rattling traps and Larry Mullen's rumbling, single note runs were alchemically transformed by Eno and Lanois into pure Americana, complete with wailing harmonicas ("Trip Through Your Wires") and endless references to deserts and water.
With the first three tracks all conquering the singles charts on both sides of the Atlantic, U2 were now here to stay. Unfortunately it also signalled a point where they began to take themselves a little too seriously (as evinced by their ponderous Rattle And Hum film). But The Joshua Tree ”“ voted number 26 in Rolling Stone's top 500 albums of all time - 20 years on, it remains their finest moment to this day.