Somewhere in there still lies the strength of Jacob, abundant for all under the shadow of the tree.
“Thank you for your patience,” Bono declared to the crowd at the Singapore National Stadium, “It only took us 42 years.”
No idea what the opposite of a clusterfuck is, but this must be it. I’m in one of South East Asia’s First World countries, in a seat that’s closest to the open area standing room, and witness to one of the biggest rock bands in the world perform their 1987 hit album in full. What a view.
When the tour venues were announced for Oceania and Asia in November and December of 2019, they marked the first ever concerts for the band in South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, and India. That’s seven shows in all in Asia.
It was also the first time U2 had ever toured in promotion of a back catalog LP, rather than a new release, which right away prompted some critics to declare that this ticked off the band as a legacy act rather than a contemporary or active one. Meaning that they had finally relented and given the fans what they wanted: all hits, all the time, live. Had they? Especially in the wake of the tepid reception for 2017’s Songs of Experience, their latest full-length LP, this seemed true off the cuff.
Yet the band have staunchly refuted any such notions of being a nostalgia legacy act, citing that the tour wasn’t just to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, but also because its socio-political anthems do seem quite eerily relevant again in the 21st century, just as it was in the late 1980s, when Bono and crew were coming to grips with the reflex cruelty of Thatcher and Reagan policies.
The Joshua Tree ranks in the top 40 of the best-selling records for a reason. Ditto for being one of the highest-ranked LPs on music critics’ lists. The argument in favor of that power and meaning can be summed up in the first three songs—the mighty trifecta of “Where the Streets Have No Name”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “With Or Without You.” Those songs so monolithic in lyricism, musicality, and imagery that they in turn made U2 the juggernaut rock monolith that it is now.
The Edge’s guitar tone and delay heaven, I know for a fact, have spawned guitar academy classes devoted to its recreation and study in its wake, simultaneously creating a slew of guitarists deftly arranging their pedalboards to dream in the same musical palette.
Yet, as they continued their exploration of American blues and roots music, what they’d created on that album also shackled them to a template. A knee-jerk reaction for their musical liberation followed. On 1991’s Achtung Baby, Bono declared to attendant media that their newest LP was “the sound of four men chopping down the Joshua Tree.”
For me, their classic sound encapsulated many of my own hopes and fears, doubts and longings. They were at the intersection of musical exploration, spiritual inquiry, and socio-political dissent. Was there ever a time that they were not a monolithic representation of those three things given voice? The Joshua Tree in my mottled memory sounded like the culmination of the signature sound and lyrical bravado that they’d been gestating since 1983’s War, through to 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire. Though when I came of age as a teen, U2 were already undeniably in their “embracing the rock star” phase with Pop and Achtung, Baby.
But still, Bono and his comrades are nothing if not masters of ritual. So it is with some surprise that when they opened with “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and “I Will Follow,” I found that I had a very visceral reaction to the rousing songs, especially since there were no visuals or live feed to accompany them. When the helicopter riff intro to “New Year’s Day” came on, then segued to the atmospheric “Bad,” and then became the Luther King tribute of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” the wetness on my face wasn’t just from the equatorial heat of the stadium.
I remember the bitterness and almost medical saccharine of nostalgia in a bare campfire rendition of “With or Without You” played on a battered guitar after a protest march I had joined during my activist days; as we smoked and drank beer we sang along, trying not to fudge the high notes. And it was in the memory of a girl on top of me on a bench in a dark corner at university when I was a freshman, whisper-singing the first verse (and the first verse only) of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in my ear as she rode to climax, trying to be as quiet as possible, trying to be quick as possible lest we get caught by one of the night guards, while still taking great pains to correctly articulate the melody.
A silhouette of the Joshua tree from the album sleeve had been painted on the stage screen, while a Joshua tree–shaped B-stage was supposed to be the tree’s shadow. When the songs from the tour album came on, the on-stage video installation, which had been quietly running lines of poetry before the concert, also came to life.
The gargantuan screen measured 200 by 45 feet and projected images that had been rendered on almost 8k quality, almost hyperreal in clarity. Anton Corbijn, who had also shot the photographs for the original 1987 album sleeve, provided the video content along with cinematographer Sebastian Wintero.
By the time “Bullet the Blue Sky” came on, the sheer call to meaning of arena rock was at full strength, a two-punch combo as Corbijn’s images of Americana was juxtaposed with the squawking blues of The Edge’s guitar work. The iconic lines of poetic bombast set against civilians donning a combat helmet gained new dimension and yet had a familiar frisson, calls to war seething out from boxy cathode ray TV sets and now hi-definition screens: “Jacob wrestled with the angel / And the angel was overcome.”
The Joshua tree is a plant that grows native to the US desert states. Its endemic locales in Joshua Tree National Park in California have poetic names like Lost Horse Valley and Queen Valley.
The rest of The Joshua Tree set was a pitch perfect wolf whistle to the glory days of arena rock, evoking that same emotiveness where the boys from Dublin felt the call to the desert, that call to be closer to the divine against the silence and succulents of a harsh landscape.
Highlights included “In God’s Country” and “Trip Through Your Wires”—somehow even Bono’s harmonica playing wasn’t an act of derisive nostalgia as much as a conjuring of dead bluesmen of yore warning about one-sided pacts with the Devil.
Sometimes Bono’s voice would be pitchy and spotty, sometimes the band would miss the beats and good will that they’d built up in favor of easy crowd favorites rather than the sublime minimalism that an album about heeding the desert warranted. The former was entirely forgivable; Bono and crew after all are in their late 50s and touring throughout 15 countries this year (after making 51 stops through 2017 and 2018) is no easy feat. But the latter was a weird grab bag as far as third acts go.
Here we must note that the LP ends with the downbeat songs “Exit” and “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Not exactly good finale material, those. Which is likely why U2 opted for a third act, collecting mixed hits from different albums to close the concert of around 25 to 26 songs.
“Beautiful Day” has got to be one of the worst singles on the entire U2 discography (when the best lyrics that Bono can come up with are “The traffic is stuck / And you’re not moving anywhere” we’re certainly in trouble) with its inane chorus and B-grade riffs, yet it was on the third act. Ditto for “Ultraviolet,” with an AVP of local women leaders, innovators, and pioneers playing on screen as tribute that it masked the totally vanilla nature of the song—in Manila, a confusing mix of acclaimed journo Maria Ressa was on the list but with singer Lea Salonga and politico Pia Cayetano were on that same video.
Between Bono’s exhortations of calling for a better future, chanting for equal rights, giving women the spotlight, with yawps of “Love is the higher law!” there was comfort here and the lull of an ecstatic promise fulfilled.
If nostalgia is defined as calling on the better angels of our nature, then this Gen X kid is happy enough. Somewhere in there still lies the strength of Jacob, abundant for all under the shadow of the tree.
Karl R. De Mesa is a journalist and writer who co-hosts the fight culture podcast DSTRY.MNL and the dark arts and entertainment podcast Kill the Lights. His latest book is Radiant Void, a collection of essays and non-fiction available from Visprint Inc.