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An album with impact U2's 'Joshua Tree' turns 20 with all its power intact

How do we separate nostalgic longing from cold, hard analysis?

We don't, most of the time. It's part of the process of remembering watershed experiences in our lives. From the time I could cognate, for example, I was aware of my parents recollecting the events surrounding JFK's assassination. It was impossible for them to look at the event in a clinical manner, just as it would later be impossible for their two sons to drain the emotional content from their own recollections of John Lennon's murder.

All of this might be doubly true when we're looking back at something positive, something that ended up being pivotal in shaping the person we eventually turned out to be. Music has a way of cementing itself to certain memory cells, to the point where hearing it can take you back to the place you heard it first, or the time it first spoke to you, or the people you were with when it became clear that this was somehow your music -- yours personally, or maybe your generation's, as cliched as believing such can seem.

If you're a 30-year-old, listening to Nirvana's "Nevermind" today might have you pining for your favorite flannel shirt from 1992. The shoe-gazers among us might break into fits of earnestly poetic self-pity if we stumble into a house party while someone happens to be playing the Smiths' "Meat Is Murder." Aging metalists surely feel a tear coming on when Iron Maiden's "Run to the Hills" finds its way onto a radio playlist.

For me, hearing U2's "The Joshua Tree" has remained an incredibly emotional experience, one I place up there with the first time I heard "Physical Graffiti," "Let It Be," "Bitches Brew," "Darkness on the Edge of Town," Mahler's fourth symphony, "OK Computer" and "Grace." With all of these records, I recall, vividly, exactly where I was when I first heard them -- a fact amazing to me, since I have trouble remembering what calls I need to return from yesterday, what I have to do tonight or what I had for breakfast this morning. (Coffee, surely.)

"The Joshua Tree" is something different. The record -- U2's fifth, and still its finest -- turned 20 on Tuesday, and was granted (finally!) a thorough remastering, deluxe new packaging with an extra disc of B-sides and a concert DVD/documentary from the relevant tour. It's interesting when you've lived with a piece of art in such an intimate way for such a long period of time. Often, the intensity with which you experience that art can dim, fade or disappear. Sometimes that's your own fault -- you've simply stopped bringing your own passion to the experience, as concerned as you now are with, say, golfing, shopping or talking on your cell phone. (Or simply working a job, raising a family and clinging to a diminishing amount of sanity.) Sometimes it's the fault of the art itself -- maybe it really wasn't that great to begin with, and spoke to you only in the specific milieu you found yourself in back then. Some artifacts simply can't age gracefully beyond their particular eras.

That's not the case with "The Joshua Tree," though. The record remains a pivotal one in my own self-definition process. When I hear it, I think about the way I assimilated the album's suggestions -- ephemeral and abstract as they were -- into my consciousness, where they remain as a sort of lens through which I view "pop art."

"The Joshua Tree" is a musically simple, emotionally complex record, one that set the bar incredibly high, in my estimation. I heard the record exactly when I needed to -- while I was in college, experiencing what will have to pass in my life for a Renaissance of the musical, intellectual and (this is a tricky word, but please take it in the manner I offer it) spiritual sort. This is a time when you plot out exactly who and what you want to be, while drinking too much, talking too much and feeling too much. It's a time of great narcissism but, oddly, it's also the time when you are most open to a broad worldview -- it's the time, ideally, when you realize you live in the world, not just a country/state/town/street. The window, oh so briefly, is open.

Through that window came a record balancing poetic yearning, religious confusion and sociopolitical vitriol on the head of a pin. There in my room, "The Joshua Tree" found some soft, willing soil in which to plant its roots.

It starts with an overture of sorts, in the hanging, portentous chords of "Where the Streets Have No Name," a tune that ends up being about the search for transcendence of political, social, spiritual and physical boundaries. It's just a song. But it's a song that conjures up the battle and then wins it. Plato and Aristotle might have called it cathartic.

"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" followed, and it made me wish I had a faith to question and kick against. (Of course, I did, without knowing it. It was a faith in music.) "With or Without You" told me more about love relationships than I'd earned the right to know. (It still does.) "Bullet the Blue Sky" is a song that questions Reagan-era foreign policy in Latin America by employing language from the Bible. Nice touch -- this, remember, was an era of right-wing religious conservative hijinks not unlike the one we're in now. Bono used the Bible against those who'd thump it for their own gain.

Musically, the album takes simple chord progressions -- most of them not involving more than four chords, some needing only two to tell the story in a definitive manner -- and dresses them in rather ornate clothing. The Edge had become a master of the digital delay-soaked rhythm-manipulating and tone-shaping "guitar washes" he'd hinted at from the beginning. The rhythm section was primal, but profound. Bono was the best rock singer in the world at the time, and throughout the record he is simply overcome by the emotional resonance of his own band's music. He was right to feel that way.

"The Joshua Tree" turned out to be a prophetic album. It's the masterpiece its members found each other in order to create. And at 20, it has lost none of its ability to conjure a mood something like a state of grace.


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