U2 didn’t do anything new. But they were still somehow important. Hear me out here. In terms of influence, it’s true they were titans: R.E.M. and U2 started a trans-Atlantic split in pop culture, dictating trends and ideology for many of their respective countries’ bands for years to come.
The 80s were a decade of heightened emotion, and Bono’s soaring, yet human vocals embodied that idea. Throughout the last few decades, U2 fulfilled the sort of function that David Bowie did in the 70s and early 80s – arbiters of the newest trends, pulling each one off with at least vague competence and acting as icons of fashion and attitude as much as musical innovation. With the ambiguous, yet important spirituality that features in many of their tunes, they brought a religious subtext back to rock music after George Harrison’s 70s work had gone out of style (perhaps not coincidentally, Christian rock became a thing in the 90s). They also brought political sloganeering back in vogue.
Like their aforementioned American peers, U2 are a tight-knit, democratic outfit, with each member bringing something fundamentally important to the table. Because of both bands’ constant reinvention and in-group bonhomie, they remain the poster boys for maintaining a career in rock over time.
Now all of this superficial freshness is all well and good, but as much as U2 purported themselves to be bold, important and creative, they weren’t really breaking new ground. Much like their commercial contemporary Madonna, it was all about the image (and the confidence in their supremacy – they were almost a self-fulfilling propecy of success).
They provided the archetype for self-congratulatory, business-minded music, walked the line between art and commerce, and proved they could hold their own with young kids out of their target demographic. Their 90s experiments (and to some extent, this far superior masterpiece) kinda-sorta provided a template for European dance-pop, the Britpop revival and other stuff.
Really, though, The Joshua Tree is just an extremely enjoyable roots-rock revival with a new wave polish. And it’s hard to talk about the history of rock without acknowledging U2’s nigh-invisible guiding hand. So here we are.
Key track: “In God’s Country”
See also: Under A Blood Red Sky – U2 (1983), Achtung Baby – U2 (1991)