This was, perhaps, inevitable: an anniversary update of U2’s most championed album in multiple formats and levels of extravagance released in time for a heavily promoted stadium tour designed to highlight music from that very recording.
So let’s cut to the chase about the reawakened editions of “The Joshua Tree.” Forget the lavish sets of endless mixes and rehashed B-sides. The one you want is a two-disc edition that sports a remastered version of the original album as “directed” by U2 guitarist The Edge and a knockout live recording drawn from a September 1987 concert at Madison Square Garden. It sells for about $20. It’s all you need.
The remastered studio record sounds great, but so did the original mix. With Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois handling production duties, it remains a gorgeous-sounding work that balances orchestral ambience with a lean rhythmic attack underscored by that luscious Edge guitar shimmer. We won’t waste time discussing the songs, other than to say their topicality hasn’t dimmed through the decades. Thematically and musically, “The Joshua Tree” sounds as if it could have been made last week.
No, the attention grabber here is the live album. We received chronicles of U2’s late-1980s performance intensity when the “Rattle and Hum” soundtrack emerged in 1988. But the Madison Square Garden recording is a full-on dose of the real thing: a band, whose members were still in their late 20s at the time, raging with a youthful drive but balanced with a focus and immediacy reflective of artists of far greater vintage.
When the opening glow of “Where the Streets Have No Name” gives way to the elemental charge of “I Will Follow,” you all but feel the power surge. By the time vocalist Bono tears through “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” the wattage is immeasurable. The singer seems tireless, blasting away with a bravado mixed with a defiance of an artist facing his final days of true rock ’n’ roll youth.
The hits sound great, but it’s the forgotten tracks that really excite, as in the way “MLK” is sung like an ambient lullaby over a synthesized hum before “Bullet the Blue Sky” skyrockets the performance to bedlam. Similarly, the title tune to 1982’s “October” sits as a piano-led lament with a majestically pure vocal wail that says its peace in a slim two minutes before making way for “New Year’s Day.” Best of all is the lost “Joshua Tree” gem “Exit” that ticks away its murderous narrative like a time bomb. It’s propelled by ragged guitar syncopation before easing into a chant-like cover of “Gloria” — not the tune U2 cut for “October,” but the rock classic of the same name penned more than two decades earlier by another Irish pop spiritualist, Van Morrison.
This live disc isn’t a mere time capsule excavation. True, many may see it as nothing more than a way to aid in the rehashing of a rock classic — and that may have well been the marketing strategy behind its inclusion here. But all that fades when you take a listen. That’s when the years lose their definition and a bottle of honest rock ’n’ roll splendor shelved for three decades is uncorked. What a riotous and righteous party it is that ensues.