If there’s one thing that defines U2, it’s their fifth album 1987’s The Joshua Tree. Even though the Irish four-piece are arguably the biggest band in the world, with 14 studio albums and decades of sold out tours around the globe, that LP serves as the best encapsulation of their long-running career. With singles as ubiquitous as “With or Without You,” “Where The Streets Have No Name,” and “I Still Have What I’m Looking For,” its iconic Anton Corbjin-shot cover art, and cathartic live shows, it remains the band’s best-selling album and grandest accomplishment.
More than that, The Joshua Tree is taking on new relevance now and not just because the album turned 30 last year. A product of the tumultuous Reagan and Thatcher-era, the album’s genesis comes from the band’s experiences in America. Whatever you feel about Bono or having a U2 album automatically downloaded to your iPhone, there’s a new perspective listening to these songs during the Trump presidency and Brexit. The Edge told Rolling Stone last year, “Wow, these songs have a new meaning and a new resonance today that they didn't have three years ago, four years ago.”
But though millions of people have bought U2’s albums and have seen the band at one of their many sold-out arena tours, millions more haven’t listened at all. Two of those people are Diet Cig’s Alex Luciano and Noah Bowman. The New Paltz, NY-based duo take inspiration more from jangly and infectious indie pop, making efficient and clever pop songs on their debut 2017 album Swear I’m Good At This that’s miles apart from the Daniel Lanois and Brian Eno-produced bombast of The Joshua Tree. When I meet the band before a show at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge, lead singer Luciano tells me, “I can’t believe we have to listen to U2 for an hour!”
“All I know is that Bono wears sunglasses. He also used to have long hair but now he has short hair. He also recently said that the music industry and rock music is pretty girly right now,” explains drummer Bowman. Luciano chimes in, “My initial impression of him is that he has this White Savior Complex where if he donates to charities in Africa, he’s an inherently good person. Therefore he can say misogynistic things without expecting any backlash.” She adds, “I didn’t like what he said about music being girly now. Like, what? Women make really angry-ass music now. He’s not paying attention. There’s no shortage of that.”
While that might not be the most optimistic start to a newfound obsessed with the long running, massively-successful Irish rock band, read the band’s first impression of the album below.
1. "Where the Streets Have No Name"
Noisey: I’m going to guess you’ve heard this one.
Luciano: Are there any pop culture collisions with this album? When did come out?
Well, this was 1987 and it was the Reagan-era. It’s U2’s fifth album and much of it, in a short summary, is about the band’s time trying find to the American dream. Like a lot of U2 albums, it’s pretty political, and many of the songs are about them grappling with the promise and contradictions of the country.
Luciano: Whoa, that’s deep. I feel like I know this guitar part.
Bowman: Oh, I know this song.
According to interviews with the band, a large portion of their writing time was spent trying to get this intro right. The Edge, the band’s guitarist, tinkered with this opening riff relentlessly to get the timing right when the rest of the band comes in.
Luciano: Wait. The Edge? His name is the Edge? Is that really his legal name? What’s Bono’s real name?
It’s just a stage name but I agree it maybe hasn’t aged particularly well. Also, Bono’s given name is Paul Hewson.
Luciano: So Bono just decided one day that he’s going to be called Bono. He really is a robot.
Bowman: Why Bono?
It was a nickname “Bono Vox” he got that was a play on the latin phrase for “Good Voice.”
Luciano: Ha! He’s such a prick! But on the other hand, this song really isn’t bad.
It’s funny you brought up Bono’s stage name because when I was researching this album, a lot of it brought up the strain the tour brought on Bono’s marriage. I forgot Bono’s wife’s name, which is Ali Hewson. I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet so I looked at the name for a second because for some reason I assumed she would be called Ali Bono.
Luciano: I was actually hoping Bono would be his real name because Madonna’s name is actually Madonna. She’s Italian. Cher’s given name is Cherilyn, which I think counts too.
Bowman: Going back to the song, I like how it’s building but I think I might be over it already. It sounds really cool though.
Luciano: I want to run out on a soccer field right now.
Bowman: I get it though. If this is a record about coming to America, it makes sense to have it sound this epic.
2. "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
Luciano: I didn’t know this song was U2. The only U2 I thought I’d heard before this was the one they put on my iPhone. I put on a few songs and couldn’t get through it.
Bowman: It’s so funny that they thought everyone was going to listen to it just because it was automatically on everyone’s phones.
I know the band thought everyone would be super-receptive to having a free U2 album but that’s definitely not what happened. Some people, especially non-U2 fans, felt pretty violated or annoyed.
Bowman: I feel like I’ve heard this song at the Super Bowl. Have they done the halftime show before?
Yeah, in 2002. It was the one after 9/11. Last year, GQ called it the best halftime show ever.
Bowman: That’s bullshit. Prince was the best halftime show ever.
Luciano: How many movies and commercials do you think this song has been in? Is this the single off the record? I feel like it is.
This song and the next song, “With or Without You” are the band’s top charting singles. I remember “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” in Runaway Bride but it’s definitely been everywhere.
Bowman: This record actually sounds sick.
Luciano: Going into this, I really wanted to hate U2 but I’m definitely enjoying it. I so deeply wanted to be quoted as saying “Fuck U2” based on my initial impression but I can’t do that. It’s good!
3. "With or Without You"
Luciano: I know this record. [singing] With or without you!
Bowman: I feel like we’re going to keep going with this album and know every song.
Possibly. This album is super top-heavy. Most of the hits are stacked on Side A. But this one is arguably the band’s biggest song.
Luciano: I can’t begin to think of how many times I’ve heard this song in my mom’s car. I can smell the gummy vitamins she’d hand me before I went to school.
Bowman: I wonder what the shows were like when they were touring this.
Probably super-cathartic. While this was their big album, they were already playing huge venues. They brought out opening acts The Pretenders, Ray Vaughan, The Waterboys, Los Lobos, The Pogues, Lou Reed, and more. Some dates, U2 dressed up as cowboys and did country covers and opened up for themselves. The venues were so big only the fans in the front row could tell.
Luciano: What? That’s so awesome. What was their fake band name?
The Dalton Brothers. Bono’s frontman alter-ego was Alton Dalton.
Luciano: That’s so funny. I hate how much I’m loving this.
Bowman: I really want this to be on YouTube.
4. "Bullet the Blue Sky"
This is a fan-favorite and it’s one of the the most rockin’ songs they’ve ever put out.
Luciano: It’s definitely edgier, no pun intended. I feel like Bono must’ve been wearing his darker shades when singing this. I’m looking at old videos on my phone of him performing. He had crazy hair and was really intense onstage. He looks cool! He was definitely a bad boy.
There’s a really cool concert film of them playing Red Rocks from 1983. If you guys dig this, you should check that out.
Luciano: I will. At the same time, I think this is the song I’d go to the bathroom during at a show. It’s the kind of track that seeing live would make me realize I’m too drunk at a festival and that I need to take a walk. Way too much dissonant guitar.
5. "Running to Stand Still"
Luciano: I like this one this feels like an emotional ballad. It’s still a slow build. I’m into it.
Bowman: My parents went to go see U2 about five or six years ago. I just remember them saying, “It was way too loud.”
In your parents’ defense, sometimes when you’re at a stadium show and right by the speakers, it’s awful.
Luciano: Harmonica on this! That’s so pretty. Wait, but why was Bono complaining about music being girly? This is pretty chill.
I wonder what he wants music to sound like given his comments. Like, name an album, Bono.
Luciano: Someone needs to make an easy-list of 10 bands full of people who aren’t cis men, who rock 1000x harder than U2.
6. "Red Hill Mining Town"
This song’s about the 1984 National Union of Mineworkers' strike in England.
Luciano: Is Bono a socialist?
Definitely not now. I don’t think we’re going to see him at a DSA meeting or anything. A few years ago he extolled the benefits of capitalism taking people out of poverty. I don’t know if he’s always thought that.
Luciano: I think I like old Bono and I don’t know if I like new Bono. Is that how the world feels?
I read a concert review of a 2017 Joshua Tree show. Apparently, during the set, the band plays Reagan's the “shining city on a hill” speech, about how America's doors should be open to everyone. After that, he yelled, “Thank you, Ronald Reagan!” That’s definitely not something a socialist would yell.
Luciano: He might’ve just lost touch now that he’s so rich.
Bowman: The production on this record is great.
Luciano: I do kind of think it’s a little more ‘80s than I expected. While it’s not too synthy, it definitely feels of the era.
Bowman: What were the other big albums from 1987?
Guns N’ Roses’ Appetite For Destruction , Michael Jackson’s Bad, Dinosaur Jr’s You’re Living All Over Me , The Replacements’ Pleased To Meet Me , and Def Leppard’s Hysteria are some other albums.
7. "In God's Country"
Luciano: I like this one but it does kind of sound the rest of the record.
Bowman: Like the rest of them, I enjoy this song. I don’t really remember anything that’s played already, which isn’t a bad thing, but this album feels like one continuous thought. It all sounds good but I’m having trouble remembering individual song.
Luciano: The guitars on this one are particularly cool.
8. "Trip Through Your Wires"
Luciano: The harmonica is back! This should’ve been one of their cowboy songs. This feels like a song you’d play at a barbecue: Dad’s grillin’ and mom’s chillin.’ This harmonica also has so much melancholy. Did Bono play the harmonica?
He did. Apparently other album titles considered included “The Desert Songs” and “The Two Americas.”
Luciano: Wow, that’s also deep. Earlier today, we were doing another interview. They were like, ‘do you have any other messages for the fans?” And I looked at the camera and said, “Don’t ever make yourself small for anyone else.” They replied, “Oh, we just wanted you to plug your tours and album.” It got really deep and got a little weird.
9. "One Tree Hill"
Luciano: This sounds like U2 wrote this one for The Lion King but Elton John beat them out. I like it, though.
This is actually one of the sadder songs on the album. It’s a tribute to a former U2 crew member Greg Carroll, a New Zealander who passed away in a motorcycle accident. When he met Bono, he took him to “One Tree Hill,” a park in New Zealand.
Luciano: That’s sad. Sonically, this feels like a nice palate cleanser compared to the rest of the album. A lot of this is also reminding me of Dave Matthews Band, even though I’m not too familiar with Dave Matthews Band.
Luciano: What’s happening on this one?
This is the penultimate track. It actually sounds the most like some of their earliest records. There’s a lot of post-punk vibes here.
Luciano: I think I’d really like old U2 if it sounds more like this. How many albums do they have?
They have 14 studio albums.
Luciano: How did they write so much music? I feel like it took every fiber of my being to write our record and we only have one.
Well, they’ve been a band for over 40 years.
Luciano: And their lineup hasn’t changed?
It’s been the same four guys.
Luciano: That’s crazy. I’m hearing their influence on a lot of bands I’ve seen. I like that bass sound. It’s intense. It’s like I’m going to get abducted by aliens.
11. "Mothers of the Disappeared"
Luciano: Whoa, it’s almost over? Now that I’ve heard most of the whole thing I think I get it. I like some of the songs.
Bowman: Would you put this on in the morning tomorrow when we leave Chicago?
Luciano: I would listen to it in the van. I don’t know if I’d put it on headphones. I have a feeling this is going to hit a huge climax and blow up.
This one’s actually more of a slow burn.
Luciano: Oh, nevermind then.
Bowman: One thing I’ve noticed is how rhythmic The Edge’s guitar-playing is.
Luciano: I will say that my least favorite part about U2 is actually Bono’s voice. Not that it’s bad but I don’t like the way it sounds. He sings so seriously and proper. Is this it? I like a nice chiller to round out the whole album.
Bowman: I liked it. I’m surprised because I didn’t expect it to sound like that through-and-through, I thought it would be much more rockin’ as opposed to moody-and-vibin.’ It sounded really good.
Luciano: It sounded super good. In the middle, some of the songs I could take or leave but the structure of the record is really cool. It comes in so hot and then the rest just falls, which is really cool. I would listen to it while I’m making dinner or something but I don’t think I’d pop it in the headphones and just focus on that album over everything else. It’s cool though. Way better than I expected.
Josh Terry is a writer in Chicago. He's on Twitter.