It’s the 30th anniversary of U2’s The Joshua Tree. This milestone prompted an anniversary tour reviving interest in the band (now soldiering through their sixth decade!) as well as the album itself, which many consider to be their greatest achievement.
As a youth in the 1980s, trying to convince my religious parents to let me listen to rock and roll, I pointed most often to The Joshua Tree to convince them of the sincerity of the band’s faith. The examples are many and obvious, perhaps none more so than the gospel-inspired “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” performed on the film Rattle & Hum in a church, complete with swaying choir providing backing vocals. But life’s most spiritually significant moments rarely happen in church.
The Joshua Tree is the culmination of activist U2, marching into culture with the chutzpah that comes with an unwavering belief in the purity of your ideology. Much like the West at the end of the 1980s, the band was at the height of its powers, convinced they were on the precipice of changing the world.POP is about faith’s fragility, when you realize your ideology isn’t going to change the world.
But the new reality proved to be far messier than everyone imagined it would be during the Cold War. And it left the band worn out and disillusioned, with Bono famously declaring in 1989 that they needed to go away for a while to “dream it all up again,” leading many to speculate that the band was about to split.
If you didn’t experience Achtung Baby, the band’s 1991 release, as a U2 fan raised on their 1980s catalogue, it’s hard to describe what it was like to hear the opening notes of “The Fly,” the album’s first single, coming out of your radio’s speaker. It was at once searing, unsettling, and exciting. The new sound was a revelation, born into a new world. The Berlin Wall had fallen. East was reuniting with West, and the Soviet Union began to crumble under its own weight.
Recorded in East Berlin, Bono proclaimed that Achtung Baby was the sound of the band “chopping down The Joshua Tree.” The spiritual turn the album took was just as dramatic. Achtung Baby’s most poignant song, “Until the End of the World,” is sung from the perspective of Judas confronting Christ resurrected, with Judas at times demanding, at times pleading with Jesus to honor His promise of forgiveness:
Waves of regret and waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You, you said you’d wait
’Til the end of the world
The album began a decade for U2 that is highly contentious for the band’s rabid fan base. While Achtung Baby is generally loved, even considered by some, including yours truly, to be U2’s greatest album, their subsequent release, 1993’s Zooropa, delved too far into the weird for The Joshua Tree devotees. A little too electronic, a little too European. Are there even instruments being played on some of these songs? It was an open question and a valid one. U2’s drummer Larry Mullen Jr. reportedly wondered if he even had a place in the band’s new incarnation.
According to many fans and critics, U2’s new direction truly bottomed out with the 1997 release of the band’s ninth album, POP. Over the years, critics and fans have savaged the record. Even the band has settled on the decision to just pretend it doesn’t exist. On the rare occasion that they do talk about POP, it is in apologetic tones, making excuses that they didn’t take the necessary time to finish it as they intended.
If that isn’t bad enough, the band getting stuck in a gigantic mirror-ball lemon during the POPmart tour that followed POP’s release was an all too apt metaphor for how many critics saw the new album—glittery, flashy, and dysfunctional.
Younger U2 fans should be forgiven for not even realizing POP exists. Search Apple Music albums for “pop” and it’s not listed in the results. Focus that search to “u2 pop.” and it’s the third album down the list. The songs from POP are rarely played in concert—of the top 50 songs that U2 has performed live most often, only one is from POP (“Please”).
And that’s really too bad, because POP is U2’s most spiritually significant album. If The Joshua Tree is about marching confidently into a broken world with the boldness of one’s faith, POP is about that faith’s fragility amidst the noise, confusion, and chaos that come when you realize your ideology isn’t going to change the world. POP demands nuance in a world that provides none.
The album is the culmination of the decade of U2’s discontent that began with Bono lyricizing Judas in “Until the End of the World” and inhabiting MacPhisto, a shiny-suited devil during the Zoo TV tour. It ended with the band prostrate, literally begging the God they believed would change the world in the 1980s to do something, anything about the evil they saw all around them.
In “Wake Up Dead Man,” Bono openly questions whether God is even able to intervene:
Jesus help me
I’m alone in this world
And a f*cked up world it is too
I’m waiting here boss
I know you’re looking out for us
But maybe your hands aren’t free
Bono echoes the same in “If God Will Send His Angels”:
God’s got his phone off the hook babe
Would he even pick up if he could
It’s been a while since we saw that child
Hanging round this neighborhood
But the spiritual heart of POP, and perhaps of the band’s entire run, is the record’s third track. “Mofo” is a dark horse candidate in the debate about U2’s greatest song.
In Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche as an allegory of faith, doubt, and rage against merciless, unseen, and unjust gods.
Orual, the narrator, spends the majority of the book making an accusation against the gods, blaming them for the loss of her sister, infuriated by their lack of reply. But in the act of writing she realizes her own selfishness and discovers the real reason the gods haven’t responded:
The complaint was the answer. To have heard myself making it was to be answered. Lightly men talk of saying what they mean.… When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you’ll not talk about the joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?
“Mofo” begins with the band in the same place they’ve been throughout POP. Lyrically searching, the song a confusion of sound:
Lookin, for to save my, save my soul
Lookin’ in the places where no flowers grow
Lookin’ for to fill that God-shaped hole
Fighting the chaos of the past decade, Adam’s bass drives the song to its climax. Edge’s guitar slices through a cacophony of noise:
Lookin’ for a sound that’s gonna drown out the world
Lookin’ for the father of my two little girls
And then everything drops out except Larry’s drums, and the album and the decade preceding it click into place:
Still lookin’ for the face I had before the world was made
It’s the same conclusion Lewis draws in Till We Have Faces. God’s refusal to respond to Bono’s desperation, to engage humanity, is not because of God: it’s because we’re so lost that we wouldn’t recognize it if God did respond. How can God show us the nature of things if we’re so blinded by the physical world that surrounds us that we don’t even know who we are as children of God?
How can they [the gods] meet us face to face till we have faces?
For Bono, finding the face he “had before the world was made” means cutting through the excess of fame and success, of ego and selfishness, to discover who he is as a man made in God’s image.
Lewis further addresses the absurdity of humans questioning God in A Grief Observed, the intimate memoir he wrote in the wake of the loss of his wife:
Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask—half our great theological and metaphysical problems—are like that.
The arc of the 1990s, the cynicism and confusion of Achtung Baby and Zooropa, followed by the whimpered defeatism of POP, led many of U2’s Christian fans to question the band’s commitment to their faith.
But POP isn’t the sound of the band turning away. Like Jacob millennia before, POP is the sound of U2 wrestling with God.
In U2 By U2, Bono says: “There are a lot of arguments with God on this record. But it does not chart my loss of faith. You can’t be having an argument with God if you don’t believe there is one.”
U2 has an interesting habit in their live performances of foreshadowing where they’ll end up in a few years. During the Lovetown tour in the late 80s, they added an extra verse to “With or Without You” in which Bono sings “one heart, one hope, one love,” echoing the song “One” from Achtung Baby.
In the mid 90s, a few years before the desperation of POP, they added an extra verse to the live version of “One,” with Bono pleading “hear us coming Lord, hear us call, hear us knocking, we’re knocking on your door.” He’s begging for a response, any response. But he’s not getting one.
“Please,” POP’s penultimate track, is where the band’s desperation is felt the most acutely. Bono begs his fellow believers repeatedly to “get up off their knees,” to do something, anything other than waiting for God to respond to their prayers.
In the live version of “Please,” performed during the POPmart tour, the song’s desperation fades seamlessly into “Where the Streets Have No Name,” the only song in U2’s catalogue that feels at home in every phase of the band’s run.
I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see the dust cloud disappear
Without a trace
I want to take shelter
From the poison rain
Where the streets have no name
With this throwback to the heady days of the late 80s, when they were the biggest rock band in the world, U2 is saying they are ready to move on from the cynicism and doubt of the 90s and into a more hopeful future.
POP is the climactic moment in a man’s deepest struggles with God. The crux at which he will either turn away from youthful idealism or continue forward into a more mature understanding of what it means to be a spiritual man in a broken world.
With the benefit of hindsight we know which direction U2 took. Like Orual penning her accusation to the gods, “the complaint was the answer.” Recording POP allowed U2 to move beyond their own cynicism.
Many old-school U2 fans see the past 17 years as a welcome return by the band to their roots. But post–POP, U2 is a much more mature band than they were in the years before Achtung Baby.
Their most recent release, Songs of Innocence, sounds like a band beginning to take stock as they near the end of a long road. In “Song for Someone,” Bono reflects on how far the band has come and how far they still have left to go:
I’m a long way from your hill of Calvary / I’m a long way from where I was or where I need to be
Thirty-seven years after their first single “I Will Follow” hit like a lightening bolt, U2 is remembering what inspired them to begin the journey in the first place, and that the road is still worth traveling.