u2 - achtung baby (album cover)I love how the heavens open up and deliver The Edge‘s guitar in the beginning of “Where the Streets Have No Name.” It’s certainly a fitting beginning for one of the most flawless albums ever crafted, a rare modern masterpiece that turned U2 into international superstars. Even though they have released some good work since The Joshua Tree — most notably 1991‘s Achtung Baby — this is their high-water mark. Their steady ascension from lowly post-punk rockers in the early ’80s to anthemic spirit rockers in the mid-’80s reached a peak here, because apart from the aforementioned Achtung Baby, they have failed to successfully push themselves in a new direction over the past twenty-five years. After they unsuccessfully dabbled with dance-rock and electronica on 1993‘s Zooropa and 1997‘s Pop, respectively, they basically just reverted back to the style of The Joshua Tree on 2000‘s comeback All That You Can’t Leave Behind, streamlining their approach into a more accessible, hook-driven sound.

u2 - all that you can't leave behind (album cover)All That You Can’t Leave Behind has been celebrated by most as a return to form for them, and while I have always liked it, I have sort of always taken issue with the fact that there was essentially no progress. Ditto How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb. Their latest, No Line on the Horizon, I have tried pretty hard to like without much success. While All That You Can’t Leave Behind may have been a return to the anthemic, yearning style of The Joshua Tree, it’s a considerably louder album. The Joshua Tree, thankfully, was made before the loudness war took off, and one of its key strengths lies in the fact that it sports almost no discernible dynamic range compression at all. (The original CD release scores a very high 12 of a potential 14 in the dynamic range database.)

This past weekend I went with my aunt and uncle to see Ronald Reagan’s presidential library in Simi Valley, California, which is just northwest of where I live. I’m not a fan of Reagan — you may have noticed that I have sniped at him a couple of times throughout this list — but his library (more like a shrine) is a really neat place up in the hills — I even got to walk through a now-out-of-use Air Force One — overlooking the beautiful Southern California landscape for miles and miles. The nature of The Joshua Tree easily lends a “climbing” imagery, so I couldn’t help but think of this album the other day as I stood there admiring the view in the perfect May weather. The themes in The Joshua Tree are so universal, especially the simple act of overcoming, of climbing the mountain in your way. (Incidentally, I think U2 is better at tackling universal themes than individual targets.)

The Edge’s chord-less guitar brushes up against you like a cold, stiff west-coast wind, his tightly controlled, effects-laden arpeggios pushing against Bono‘s vocals, which are so wet in timbre and soaring in heartfelt emotion they sound like they’re about to start an avalanche. It’s all set against the backdrop of the tender, damp quiet of a cool mountain spring. Well, almost. The sparse, desert-like acoustic whisper of “Running to Stand Still” is a hushed response to the stormy “Bullet the Blue Sky.” But for the most part, these songs probe and wander like a restless spirit across untouched land. The Joshua Tree may be named after a kind of tree (yucca brevifolia) found in the Mojave Desert, but it flows with the ease of a flood spreading water over a plain with wave after magnificent wave. It’s an outsider’s perspective of America, a view from a lofty perch overlooking the heartland, and it’s more critical than you might think.