Today, The Joshua Tree turns 30. Congrats, The Joshua Tree, you are one of the greatest rock albums ever made. But are you the greatest U2 album ever? Or is Achtung Baby just a little bit better? I’ve been thinking about this question for most of my life — there are no two albums I’ve played more than The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby — and I believe I’m prepared to declare which U2 album is superior, once and for all.
This is what we’re going to do: We will go through each album track by track, and pick which song is better. Whichever album wins the most track-on-track battles will be declared the winner. (We will also ignore the admonishments of those who believe that Boy or War or The Unforgettable Fire “are actually better,” because life is too short.)
Before we begin, let’s address an important problem: The Joshua Tree has 11 tracks, and Achtung Baby has 12. For the sake of competitive balance, we will put “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World” on the bench. In my view, “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around the World” is the weakest track on Achtung Baby. Am I saying it’s a bad song? No, it’s great. But it’s a little less great than the rest of the album.
Are we set? Good. I want to tear down the walls that are holding my U2 opinions inside.
1. “Where The Streets Have No Name” vs. “Zoo Station”
In the U2-iverse, The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby have a yin-yang relationship. The Joshua Tree is U2’s “American” album, while Achtung Baby is the “European” LP. The Joshua Tree is typically described as “earnest” and “uplifting,” whereas Achtung Baby is classified as “ironic” and “emotionally bruised.” The iconography of The Joshua Tree is a wide-open desert, and for Achtung Baby it’s an urban landscape. The Joshua Tree is obsessed with history, and Achtung Baby strives toward an uncertain future. The binaries go on and on with these two albums. Preferring one over the other (probably) says something about your overall worldview.
The side 1, track 1’s for The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby immediately establish their respective record’s personalities — “Where The Streets Have No Name” is a sweeping call to arms that roars into the world at dawn, and “Zoo Station” is a weary missive from a hungover traveler sneaking off in the dead of night. But as different as they are sonically, “Where The Streets Have No Name” and “Zoo Station” share the same quintessentially U2 theme — they’re about leaving one place for another in the hope that it will make your life better.
They’re both amazing songs. “Zoo Station” ranks among the best of all U2 album openers. “Where the Streets Have No Name” ranks among the best album openers by anybody, ever.
The Joshua Tree 1, Achtung Baby 0
2. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” vs. “Even Better Than The Real Thing”
Let’s talk about Adam Clayton, because hardly anybody ever talks about Adam Clayton, and nobody has ever talked about Adam Clayton without first talking at length about Bono and The Edge. Clayton’s bass-playing is the subliminal part of U2’s music — for years you don’t notice it until one day you suddenly realize that Adam Clayton owns you. Weirdly, I came to fully understand Clayton’s genius when I heard the Ryan Adams’ song “So Alive,” one of the greatest all-time U2 rip-offs not performed by The Cult or The Alarm. What makes “So Alive” so good is that driving, murmuring bassline pushing along the faux-Edge guitar riff. For whatever reason, it took hearing someone imitate Adam Clayton in a U2 tribute song for me to notice how essential Clayton is to U2’s music. That insistent pulse is what keeps U2 upright.
Clayton’s bass sounds like the heartbeat of a legendary figure in the midst of a defining action — think Michael Jordan beating the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, or Fiona Apple doing her “This world is bullsh*t” speech at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. If you gave those people an EKG in those moments, it would sound like the bass on “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”
“Even Better Than The Real Thing” is great too but c’mon.
The Joshua Tree 2, Achtung Baby 0
3. “With Or Without You” vs. “One”
Some brief, self-indulgent autobiography: The Joshua Tree is the album that made me care about music to an irrational degree. Before that album, I was content to mindlessly jam on “Pour Some Sugar On Me” while chain-drinking cans of Mountain Dew on the couch. (I am still content to jam on “Pour Some Sugar On Me” on the couch, to be honest) But after The Joshua Tree, I learned that music could actually make your heart hurt. The last 50 seconds of “With Or Without You” — the part when Edge does his non-solo guitar solo — did that to me when I was 12. At first, I hated “With Or Without You” because it was literally painful to me to hear. I was a sensitive kid and this song made feel too much. (I know, I know, but we’re talking about The Joshua Tree here. If you’re not willing to put yourself out there emotionally, you might as well change the subject.)
Then, in the summer of 1989, I started playing The Joshua Tree at dusk during my nightly bike rides, and I gradually started to enjoy the pain. And then I wanted to find other tapes that made me feel the same way. I’ve been chasing that summer of ’89 Joshua Tree feeling ever since.
A few years later, Achtung Baby came out, and I can still remember sitting in the car with my brother and listening to “One” for the first time. I was 14. I had not kissed a girl yet. I didn’t know a goddamn thing about love or adult relationships. So, “One” introduced me to that grown-up world for the first time. When U2 wrote “One,” they were on the verge of breaking up. The Edge was in the midst of losing his marriage. All of that real-life pain went into “One,” and came out sounding to me like wisdom. Whereas “With Or Without You” is a relatively conventional expression of do-or-die love that’s familiar from a million other pop songs, “One” is a love song about putting your life in someone else’s hands. It’s beautiful, but it’s also terrifying — there’s no guarantee that you won’t end up broken. What U2 presupposes in “One” is that the fear is inextricable from the beauty.
When I hear “With Or Without You,” I think about listening to that song at dusk so many summers ago. When I hear “One,” I think about my life now.
The Joshua Tree 2, Achtung Baby 1
4. “Bullet The Blue Sky” vs. “Until The End of the World”
Not to tip my hand but: What separates Achtung Baby from other U2 albums, even The Joshua Tree, is that it’s easily Bono’s best album lyrically. Typically, I try to ignore Bono’s lyrics. (From 2001’s “Elevation”: “I and I in the sky / You make me feel like I can fly / So high, elevation.”) Bono’s greatest strength as a singer is making his most hackneyed lyrics seem profound. (From 2004’s “Miracle Drug”: “Freedom has a scent / Like the top of a newborn baby’s head.”) But when you look at Bono’s words on the page, they are undeniably embarrassing. (From 1997’s “The Playboy Mansion”: “If O.J. is more than a drink / And a Big Mac bigger than you think / And perfume is an obsession / And talk shows a confession.”)
But on Achtung Baby, Bono actually is profound much of the time. Take “Until The End Of The World.”
I took the money
I spiked your drink
You miss too much these days if you stop to think
You lead me on with those innocent eyes
You know I love the element of surprise
In the garden I was playing the tart
I kissed your lips and broke your heart
You were acting like it was the end of the world
“Until the End of the World” is about Judas betraying Jesus at The Last Supper, which you can easily ascertain in the passage I just quoted. But it also functions as a broader song about the self-destructive nature of betrayal. “Until The End Of The World” is about loving something so much that you wind up destroying it, and then yourself.
“Bullet The Blue Sky” seems a little callow in comparison. “Blue Sky” is U2’s south-of-the-border redux of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” an attempt to write a ’60s-style protest song by mashing up Bob Dylan’s “Masters Of War” with Jimi Hendrix’s version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” It’s not terrible, but ever since that 29-minute version from Rattle & Hum, I haven’t been able to take it seriously.
The Joshua Tree 2, Achtung Baby 2
5. “Running To Stand Still” vs. “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”
The best/worst part of The Joshua Tree is how front-loaded it is — all of the big hits are on side one, which in a way makes side two preferable, because it’s less familiar. “Running To Stand Still” is the only non-hit in the first half of The Joshua Tree, whereas “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” was the fifth single from Achtung Baby, released in the summer of 1992 right when U2 launched the American leg of Zoo TV’s stadium tour. I definitely know which song I’m not sick of at this point.
The Joshua Tree 3, Achtung Baby 2
6. “Red Hill Mining Town” vs. “So Cruel”
Here are two songs U2 hardly ever plays live. U2 in fact has never played “Red Hill Mining Town,” though that will change on the forthcoming anniversary tour for The Joshua Tree. This seems insane to me: Based on my conversations with U2 fans over the years, “Red Hill Mining Town” is the most obvious “non-obvious” choice for best song on The Joshua Tree. If I was at a U2 show, and I had the choice of hearing “Red Hill Mining Town” or “So Cruel,” the choice would be a no-brainer.
The Joshua Tree 4, Achtung Baby 2
7. “In God’s Country” vs. “The Fly”
Let’s go back to the yin-yang theory about The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Because U2 is U2, they took the narratives for both albums to their misbegotten extremes. The Americana of The Joshua Tree lead to the self-important bombast of Rattle & Hum, and the playfulness of Achtung Baby begat the self-important bombast of Pop. (All roads lead to self-important bombast with U2.)
But The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby still exist as models for other rock bands to follow. If you want to explore the mythical roots of America (see The Killers with Sam’s Town), you hire Anton Corbijn to shoot photos of your band looking sternly into the horizon amid dried-out vistas. If you want to shed your image as self-serious arena-rockers in lieu of a fun new “experimental” guise (see Arcade Fire with Reflektor), you incorporate dance beats and write songs about how the media is stealing our souls. “In God’s Country” and “The Fly” are the Platonic ideals for both models.
Pertinent question: Did The Edge rip off the guitar solo for “The Fly”? The recent lawsuit filed by guitarist Paul Rose isn’t 100 percent convincing, but it’s enough of a buzzkill for me to almost consider ranking “In God’s Country” over what might be The Edge’s finest instrumental moment. Almost.
The Joshua Tree 4, Achtung Baby 3
8. “Trip Through Your Wires” vs. “Mysterious Ways”
The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby are both masterpieces. But they’re not perfect. Factor in the wealth of quality B-sides that U2 created for each album, and you can easily envision ways to improve each record. As much as I enjoy the reliable pub-rock of “Trip Through Your Wires,” I wonder if The Joshua Tree wouldn’t be just a smidge better if it were replaced with “Deep In The Heart,” a moody Doors-like ballad featuring one of Bono’s most spine-tingling vocals. As for “Mysterious Ways,” one of Achtung Baby‘s big pop hits that now sounds a little dated, I know that record would be better if the slinky-as-hell “Salome” was plugged in instead. So, based on which song is more replaceable, I have to go with “Trip Through Your Wires” in an upset.
The Joshua Tree 5, Achtung Baby 3
9. “One Tree Hill” vs. “Ultraviolet”
If The Joshua Tree is front-loaded, Achtung Baby is back-loaded — not with hits, perhaps, but the emotional meat of Achtung Baby resides on side two. “Ultraviolet” might be the greatest U2 deep cut ever — it’s so beloved that it seems like a hit, but you actually have to dig into Achtung Baby to find it. If “One” is like a soul-searching conversation that takes place in bed in the middle of the night, “Ultraviolet” feels like rays of sunshine peaking through the blinds. It’s an unguarded expression of faith in a union to persevere. It’s incredibly romantic. If Achtung Baby ended here, it would be a much different record.
“One Tree Hill” is also amazing but it drew a bad match-up. (If “Ultraviolet” is the no. 1 U2 deep cut, “One Tree Hill” is, at worst, two or three spots behind.) Taking “Tryin’ To Throw Your Arms Around The World” out of the mix really killed “One Tree Hill.” I am sorry, “One Tree Hill.”
The Joshua Tree 5, Achtung Baby 4
10. “Exit” vs. “Acrobat”
Now that doubt has been cast on the guitar solo from “The Fly,” can I nominate the guitar solo from “Acrobat” as The Edge’s new crowning achievement? That solo is The Edge’s “descend into hell and describe what it feels like with your fingers” moment. It’s the high/low point of Achtung Baby. I love it so much that I am willing to pay hush money to any guitarists out there who are tempted to ruin “Acrobat” for me with a lawsuit.
“Exit” meanwhile is a song I loved when I was 12, but now find to be very skippable. It’s an incredible Adam Clayton bassline in search of a song. I guess I was more into serial killers back in grade school.
The Joshua Tree 5, Achtung Baby 5
11. “Mothers Of The Disappeared” vs. “Love Is Blindness”
So, it comes down to the closing tracks. “Mothers of the Disappeared” is an unbearably sad and beautiful song about women in Central America whose children were snatched by repressive regimes in Argentina and Chile. “Love Is Blindness” is an unbearably sad and beautiful song about learning to live with the certainty that love won’t end well. Neither is a happy ending, but they both feel true. Which is better? I have no idea. What I do have is a coin. Heads is “Mothers Of The Disappeared,” and tails is “Love Is Blindness.” Here we go.
The Joshua Tree 5, Achtung Baby 6