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Monday 19 March 2018

Have U2 found what they're looking for by glancing backwards?

The band are building their new tour around 1987 classic 'The Joshua Tree', writes Ed Power

Bono in full flight Picture: Frank McGrath
Bono in full flight Picture: Frank McGrath
Ed Power

Ed Power

U2 fans are preparing to take a trip back in time to 1987 as the band stage a globe-trotting new tour in 2017, built around the 30th anniversary of their 'The Joshua Tree' album.

Following the underwhelming response to their most recent LP, 'Songs Of Innocence', the Dubliners are holding a mirror up to their illustrious past with a run of gigs including Croke Park on July 22.

But even as U2 devotees look forward to Bono and cohorts reprising 'The Joshua Tree' track by track, they may be forgiven a shudder of unease.

After all, U2 have through their career refused to pander to the nostalgia market.

Uniquely among rockers of their generation, they have continued to push forward, only hitting the road when there is a new record to promote.

Is this latest tour an acknowledgement their best days are behind them?

If so, they are in esteemed company. The Rolling Stones have been dining out on their 1960s and 1970s catalogue for decades. Many of us are excited about seeing the original (ish) Guns N' Roses line-up at Slane - but on the understanding they won't be playing anything post-'Use Your Illusion'.

Just last summer, meanwhile, Bruce Springsteen bowed to prevailing trends in rock by performing his 1980 masterpiece 'The River' in full.

The Joshua Tree Tour in 1987 Picture: NPA/Independent Newspapers
The Joshua Tree Tour in 1987 Picture: NPA/Independent Newspapers

That tour saw Bono join Springsteen on stage at Croke Park. Is it possible he surveyed the swooning crowd and concluded that, if it was okay for Bruce to wallow in nostalgia, why couldn't U2?

Certainly, 'The Joshua Tree' is the U2 album that has proved the most enduring (with the proviso that it is more fashionable to hail 'Achtung Baby!' as their finest moment).

Here, musicians were catching lightning in a bottle as they transitioned from underdogs to swaggering mainstream rockers.

On 'The Joshua Tree' it is possible to track that transformation in real time, as they veered from the angst-soaked 'Bullet The Blue Sky' to be most straightforwardly celebratory with 'I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For' and 'Where The Streets Have No Name'.

Thus the album was a coming of age, but one marked with a sense of loss: never again would U2 be plucky outsiders, and they themselves seem aware of, and mournful about, that passing.

Still, U2 undoubtedly intended 'The Joshua Tree' to mark a new chapter when, in late 1986, they established a temporary recording studio at Danesmoate House, a gothic manor on the fringes of Rathfarnham. At that point the group were on a high from the critical acclaim heaped on their previous record, 'The Unforgettable Fire'.

But where that project had been experimental and in the tradition of punk and new wave rock, with 'The Joshua Tree' they planned something more soulful and bluesy.

So the four musicians had dived into the great American songbook, references which would simmer beneath the surface of 'The Joshua Tree' (before ultimately overwhelming the overcooked follow-up 'Rattle and Hum').

U2 at Croke Park in 2008 Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire
U2 at Croke Park in 2008 Photo: Julien Behal/PA Wire

Another influence was a journey Bono had made to Ethiopia shortly after the famine there. "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 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."

U2 insist they are not standing still and the tumultuous international circumstances in which 'The Joshua Tree' was recorded are echoed in present day upheavals.

"That record was written in the mid-1980s, during the Reagan-Thatcher era of British and US politics," The Edge told 'Rolling Stone' yesterday. "It was a period when there was a lot of unrest. Thatcher was in the throes of trying to put down the miners' strike; there was all kinds of shenanigans going on in Central America. It feels like we're right back there in a way."

But if reviving 'The Joshua Tree' is a reminder of U2's ability to channel the anxieties of their age, what does it say about their future?

'Songs Of Innocence' was regarded as a flop, its performance not helped by the Apple giveaway debacle that saw the record uploaded on to 30 million iTunes folders without permission.

A companion collection, 'Songs Of Experience', is apparently near completion. Yet if U2 are more interested in glancing backwards than ahead, why should the rest of us feel any different?

"The only band of this vintage consistently generating new hits that bring in a younger crop of fans every five years is U2," wrote the 'New Yorker' in 2009. What yesterday's 'The Joshua Tree' announcement tells us is that U2 no longer want to be that group. Their ground-breaking days are behind them and they have, it seems, at last made peace with this fact.

Irish Independent

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