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"If you're close enough to see the tattoo you're too close." — Larry, answering a question about his tattoo

U2: The Joshua Tree

Times Online
(4 of 5 stars)

These days -- usually between albums one and two -- there is something that bands do to their music that signals to the world that it can no longer be contained in a venue smaller than a Welsh market town. Coldplay did it in 2002, and both the Killers and Razorlight did it last year.

It's called "doing a U2," but when U2 did it with their fifth album in 1987, there was more to it than mere ambition. In the hardback book that comes with this expanded CD/DVD/book of The Joshua Tree, Bono talks about moving away from lyrical "sketches" and into songs that can truly account for themselves. The most timeless moments on The Joshua Tree sound both specific and universal. You can measure the folk-appeal of "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by the 50-odd cover versions since.

Elsewhere, the Edge's serrated anti-riffs mirror the tension of Bono's words. On the hungry-hearted "In God's Country" Bono taps into an Irish emigrant's notion of America. It could be as awful as almost every other song written by Europeans about America (hello Razorlight), but Bono's mid-1980s USP -- the ability to sound utterly articulate, yet desperately defeated by the impotence of words -- is still thoroughly affecting.

But without the comforting effects of dj vu, the experimental bent of producers Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois is laid bare on the second CD. It's hit-and-miss -- but for every miss, such as "Desert of Our Love," the measure of their curiosity yields dramatic results. Finally completed after 20 years in mothballs, "Wave of Sorrow (Birdland)" billows like slow-motion storm clouds signalling some great biblical reckoning, while "Luminous Times" sounds like a template for Arcade Fire's entire career.

In the accompanying notes, U2 seem ambivalent about the mythology spawned by these songs. Much of the responsibility surely lies with the Anton Corbijn imagery that, ironically, saturates this reissue. But for the desire to change that it activated -- ultimately giving rise to Achtung Baby -- that was important too. Twenty years on, the purity of The Joshua Tree's intentions make it seem almost quaint in places.

© Times Newspapers Ltd., 2007.