Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Still Building Then Burning Down Love

Today’s formative-album replay: U2 The Joshua Tree. One signature of youth, it seems to me, is the speed and thoroughness with which we shed our successive skins, contriving to leave behind no trace of our previous associations, habits, fashions (of both mind and closet) as we acquire ever “better” ones. It’s especially acute in the twilight of adolescence, around the leap into the 20s, with the end of one kind of pretend adulthood and the rough entrance into another. This certainly describes the first chapter of my history with this blindingly great U2 album, a globe-crushing culmination of their early promise which came out when I was 19 and which I loved intensely, molecularly, both live (four times) and on record, but which I more or less sloughed off with the morning-after hangover of Rattle and Hum and happily forgot once the band entered its next great phase with Achtung Baby and its underrated sequels Zooropa and Pop.

As I recall this personal history with The Joshua Tree, both the embrace and the breakup, what’s striking is that my own experience seems to have matched with uncanny exactness the world’s relationship to the record, even the band’s own attitude toward it. It felt like we all drank this record dry then briskly moved on, as from a stormy relationship we could no longer recall the spark of.

Of course, what we were leaving behind wasn’t a torrid affair or a bad haircut but something more like a cultural monument, and revisiting the record in full this past week I was struck by its solidity, its beauty, its deep-down freshness. This stately, soaring collection was a record of my youth? How lucky I was. I didn’t fall in love again this time so much as recognize The Joshua Tree as my own, or rather as our own--a masterwork we can afford to take for granted because it’s earned a well-lit niche in the pantheon.

I warmed again to the bite and chop and surge of the Edge’s singular guitar, a versatile instrument that alternately evokes a cello and a bulldozer, plangent chimes or barbed wire. I realized belatedly the debt the booming blues drone “Bullet the Blue Sky” owes to both “When the Levee Breaks” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”--which is to say, a sweet spot all its own. I discovered one reason for Side 1’s remarkable cohesion in comparison to the grab bag of Side 2: The first five songs are all within a half-step of each other, around the guitar-friendly key of D, while the awkward, charmingly earnest “Red Hill Mining Town,” in the key of G, works like a reset button for a group of tunes in a variety of keys.

Key signatures aside, those last six songs are appealingly rangy and loose, with the sound of a live band hitting their stride in the last third of a show. But throughout, the feeling is of having moved through a kind of architectural space that is all this record’s own--a draughty, shaft-lit cathedral carved out by bass and drums and synth and guitar, and the seagull soar of Bono’s voice. Perhaps this churchy analogy is most apt, for what I really may be revisiting in The Joshua Tree is the vestigial, doubting-Thomas faith of my youth--or rather, one of the more enduring shapes it took--and rediscovering both that it's as unshakeable as ever, and that it's nothing to be embarrassed about.

Previous U2 replay: October.

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