Over the past two weeks, my brain has felt like it’s split in two: a frivolous half and an anxious half. I’m spending my days nervously refreshing Twitter, monitoring updates from the Oval Office and wondering which country the President has offended today, or which Americans’ rights are now in jeopardy.
At the same time, however, I can’t help but be occasionally preoccupied by the same random pleasures I’ve always enjoyed. What’s going to happen on season two of “The Good Place?” I wonder, guiltily. Will Michigan’s basketball team make the tournament? It’s like there’s an oasis of escapism right in the middle of my stressed-out mind.
One of the only artists that’s doing much to bridge this gap has actually been U2, a band I’ve looked at to try to make sense of what art can do and what it can mean right now, in such an unpredictable, threatening world. While U2 has been around for so long that it’s hard to imagine them as anything other than the legendary institution they’ve become, back in the ’80s, they were a young, hungry, disruptively fresh band with grand political ambitions. And, as Irishmen, they also had a lot of familiarity with living in a country divided to the point of violent extremes.
There’s an almost religious power in the first decade of U2’s work. Their albums are filled with songs of faith, hope, love and passion. They seek to speak out against injustice, to provide clarity to the unknown terrors of the world. The music is unwaveringly committed and direct. You can imagine millions of people around the world closing their eyes and feeling Bono’s words flow through them. Songs like the classic, searing indictment of “Sunday Bloody Sunday” or the beautiful elegy for Martin Luther King, Jr., “Pride,” can stir emotions and demand thought and action like few other songs.
But one can see why the band turned away from these types of protest anthems in the ’90s. There’s a great power in the ability to spread messages to millions of people, to have thousands of fans every night sing words you wrote. It must also be incredibly intimidating, and in the ’90s, U2 seemed to retreat behind a curtain of post-modern irony, with Bono portraying characters on stage and the songs often carrying much more superficial meanings.
The only example of the old spiritual power from this era comes on Achtung Baby’s famous “One.” When people accuse Bono of having a “savior complex,” this is the song they’re thinking of, a slow ballad that maybe doesn’t get enough credit for Bono’s vocal performance and thoughtful lyrics. However, it represents a permanent shift in the band’s point of view. In “One,” Bono comes off as a larger-than-life presence, a man looking down on humanity and evaluating all the lives he sees. U2 was playing the biggest concerts any band could by the time of Achtung’s release, and they had lost their everyman perspective. The members of U2 were professionals, no longer passionate young men living in Dublin. Their view of the world came not from the streets anymore, but from the largest stages their employees could build.
When U2 reversed course and put out 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind, a no-frills rock album that attempted to win back the fans who had been put off by the self-indulgence and experimentation of their last few records, their attempts at anthems lacked the fiery conviction of their youth. Empty platitudes and vague choruses fill All That You Can’t Leave Behind’s runtime, as the songs try harder to evoke memories of the old U2 rather than say anything meaningful. Since that album, while they still retain their live power, the band has seemed lost on record, and at times it’s very unclear what’s motivating them to write new songs beyond market demand.
But this year, after fiercely resisting the label of “nostalgia act,” U2 has announced a tour celebrating the 30-year anniversary of 1987’s The Joshua Tree — probably the band’s most essential work — in which they’ll play the album in its entirety on a nightly basis.
It’s certainly an interesting time for U2 to come back to this record. Recorded in an era of revived conservatism, Joshua is an album that both celebrates the best and attacks the worst of America. It’s an ode to discovery, with songs like “Where the Streets Have No Name” conjuring feelings of endless freedom and “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” conveying a restless need to find something greater than yourself. But it also doesn’t shy away from political realities. “Bullet the Blue Sky” is U2 at its rawest, with the Edge’s feedback-drenched guitar slashing through Adam Clayton’s lumbering bass as a furious Bono takes the Reagan administration to task for its Central American policy.
The Joshua Tree is the perfect album for this moment in history because it simultaneously explores two Americas. There’s the ideal conception of America as a place of freedom and endless possibility, but it’s tainted by the reality that sometimes the people who run this country are nothing more than greedy bastards. Joshua Tree doesn’t solve that conflict or even attempt to bridge the gap. It lets this vision of America stay split in two.
But does it matter now? Will this tour work? Will anyone who isn’t already converted care? If The Joshua Tree affects other Americans like it’s affecting me right now, then I think so. Right now is a time when millions of Americans feel lost in their own homes, with many losing faith in the humanity of their neighbors or wondering what “land of the free” even means anymore. Old pleasures feel hollow, and previous ideas of who we are don’t seem to make sense. We’ve been left questioning where we are, and what our purpose is.
The Joshua Tree doesn’t answer those questions, but no album has ever made me think more about my place in the world. It doesn’t shy away from portraying my home country the way it truly is, but it also presents inspiring American images worth aspiring to. To some, fantasizing about running through a place “where the streets have no name” might be pure escapism, but it’s a powerful call to build a real place that lives up to our ideals. When they recorded Joshua, U2 was still a band searching, unsure of their duty in a chaotic, unjust world. But amid corruption and conflict, they offered a helping hand towards unity and reminded us of the beauty in our home that was still worth pursuing.