U2’s ultra-seminal The Joshua Tree has been remastered and re-released, with a second disc of mostly b-sides that are, well, mostly b-sides. Twenty years on from its debut, The Joshua Tree still stands up (figuratively; the actual Joshua tree on the cover sadly died back in 2000), and not just because singer Bono is still campaigning for the Third World, or that America’s still intervening rather ham-fistedly. The marriage of epic expanse and American roots-rock may have never been done any better. The second disc of b-sides, outtakes, and compilation tracks consists mostly of a few gems you’ve heard elsewhere and a lot pieces that relatively earn the label, ‘b-side’.
Much, much has already been written about The Joshua Tree, but it still holds true. Utter classics like the pressingly powerful “Where the Streets Have No Name”, the bright but also meaningful “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, and the perfectly restrained “With or Without You” still resonate. The roots-based Americana of “Bullet the Blue Sky” and “In God’s Country” still rocks. And the track listing is still top-heavy: the story goes that the late British singer Kristy MacColl chose the order, from favorite to least; this has left Joshua Tree with those three classics to start, and its weakest track, the nice but too restrained “Mothers of the Disappeared”, last.
The Joshua Tree: Remastered is being issued in many forms, from the remastered album alone on CD to the deluxe two-disc edition to the two-disc + DVD box set to even a double vinyl pressing. About half of the bonus disc is b-sides to the singles of the starting three tracks. Supposedly, Bono had originally argued for their inclusion on a double-LP Joshua Tree, but guitarist The Edge successfully got the slimmer eleven-track version, with those extras becoming b-sides. And, from their quality, The Edge was right. Quiet b-sides like “Luminous Times (Hold on to Love)” and “Deep in the Heart” have power, but lack focus, while the beats on “Walk to the Water” and “Race Against Time” are more interesting than catchy.
That isn’t to say there aren’t gems, but the best two gained notoriety elsewhere: “Streets Have No Name” b-sides “The Sweetest Thing” became a hit single when re-recorded and released on 1998’s The Best of 1980-1990, while “Silver and Gold” is largely remembered for its live version on U2’s follow-up to The Joshua Tree, Rattle & Hum. The original 1987 b-side version of “The Sweetest Thing” is still sweet (really little was changed with the later edition), but “Silver and Gold” doesn’t quite stand as tall as on Rattle & Hum.
Luckily, after the b-sides and the basically-the-same single edit of “Where the Streets Have No Name” is another version of “Silver and Gold” – the actual original version, from Steven van Zandt’s anti-apartheid classic, Sun City. Before The Sopranos, back when he was just Bruce Springsteen’s ‘little Stevie’, van Zandt recorded the anti-apartheid protest rally song, “Sun City”, and so inspired was Bono, that he wrote his own, “Silver and Gold”, recorded with Rolling Stones Keith Richards and Ron Wood (supposedly Wood used Richards’ switchblade as a slide). The end of apartheid has ironically made Sun City and this version of “Silver and Gold” relatively hard to come by; the blues-y number, with almost Davie Bowie-like vocals effects for Bono, being included here is a welcome addition.
The rest of the second disc consists of outtakes, including the airy, atmospheric, almost instrumental “Beautiful Ghost”/”Introduction to Songs of Experience” and the spoken word over free-form instrumentation “Drunk Chicken”/”America” (which actually isn’t half as annoyingly preachy as it could be). But the strongest are two other blues-y pieces, more laid-back: the meandering “Desert of Our Love” and the gangly, catchy – with its own neat slide effect – “Rise Up”.
Two decades on, The Joshua Tree is still superbly strong (if on a sliding scale). The second disc contains a few gems you already have and a few you don’t. And for any classic being re-released, that’s probably about what you could hope for.