U2’s “Joshua Tree”

Album cover for U2's "Joshua Tree"

This week, I’ve been listening to U2’s amazing fifth album “The Joshua Tree” from 1987. My parents bought a copy of this CD soon after it came out. That means I undoubtedly heard and listened to it many times when I was ten years old.

My opinion on some albums have come and gone as I’ve progressed through different stages of my life. I always loved “The Joshua Tree” no matter what my tastes were at the time. It’s a great album for listening. For a musician and songwriter, it provides rich and exciting possibilities for sound within the context of a rock song. They’ve managed to naturally find a brilliantly glowing spot between the genre’s of post-punk, pop, and rock here; I still think of this as their most perfect album.

The Edge’s Use of Delay Effects

A musician, especially a guitarist, would find it impossible to talk about this album without mentioning The Edge’s use of delay. Les Paul’s guitar in “How High the Moon” features one of the earliest uses of delay created using tape. Pink Floyd, especially guitar David Gilmour, made frequent use of delays synched to the tempo of the song. This can be heard on the bass in “One Of These Days” from 1971 or the guitar in “Run Like Hell” from 1979. In most cases, Pink Floyd’s delays were either synched to the 1/8th note or a triplets, that’s 1/3 of a 1/4 note, with several repeats.

There is a great study of The Edge’s use of Delay at amnesta.net. To summarize, The Edge frequently syncs the delay to dotted 1/8 (aka 3/16) or 1/8, and isn’t afraid to have several repeats to create depth of space and rhythmic textures. Without the delay, these are still good guitar riffs, but so much simpler than what we’re hearing on the album. I made great use of 3/16 and 5/16 tempo-synced delays in my electronic music over the past 10 years, directly inspired by The Edge. I love the sound of this album, especially the guitar.

Where the Streets Have No Name

The album opens with atmospheric synth pads fading in, morphing into the sound of an organ playing chords. These tones fold into each other. Then, The Edge’s clean electric guitar with tempo-synched delay creates a fractal-like driving texture. Bass guitar rolls in, filling the bottom layer. Drums begin to beat as the guitar grows in scratchy urgency. The song feels like a stadium, even within the studio. It’s an epic, driving, pulsating sound: full of atmosphere and determination. There’s a sense that this song MUST be performed.

The verses hold on to the tonic chord for several lines, to drop down to a IV, to pull up to vi, to V. From this V, the chorus jumps to a flattened VII, which feels like a modest key change, then to IV, which would be the V if the chorus was in a different key. Then we’re back to the vi. We’re still in the original key. That is the key of D, which coincidentally is the key of Irish bagpipes which play a continual drone. I may making too many assumptions, but U2’s Irish roots may’ve had some subtle influence here.

These first person lyrics describe a desire to escape a vague current situation. There’s a hint of a love falling apart, mixed with disappointment with effects of industrialization. The song makes use of anaphora, which is the repetition of a short phrase at the beginning of each line. When this device is used in speeches, it provides a verbal from of bullet points. It adds an immediate sense of structure to lyrics, giving the listener something to grab unto. In addition to the repetition of “I want to”, three of the four verse stanzas in the song have the titular refrain “Where the streets have no name.” This six word phrase also gets repeated twice at the start of the chorus. Furthermore, each stanza follows an AABB rhyme scheme.

I want to run, I want to hide
I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside
I want to reach out and touch the flame
Where the streets have no name

I want to feel sunlight on my face
I see that dust cloud disappear without a trace
I want to take shelter from the poison rain
Where the streets have no name.

Bullet the Blue Sky

“Bullet the Blue Sky” has long been one of my most favorite songs. The drums and bass guitar drive along repeating a menacing pattern. The bass repeats the same two bar pattern throughout. This forms the bed of the song. Overdriven guitar noises and feedback fill the background with large reverb, providing a sinister atmosphere. Much of these noises seem to be created by shaking the guitar, scratching the strings, spinning a tremolo bar, trembling a slide without actually playing notes, etc. I absolutely love these noises.

The song pretty much stays in the major tonic chord throughout. The last 1/8 note of each measure, drops to the major seventh to provide movement. During the spoken bridge in the middle of the song, the chord drops to the minor tonic. Here, U2 uses the major third instead of the major seventh at the end of each measure. The bass lines stays the same.

In God’s Country

“In God’s Country” sits near the middle of the album. It sounds fantastic and the lyrics and melody are particularly catchy. However, this song took some years to grow on me. Though the song is unique, I don’t think it stands out enough from the rest of the album. By the time we’ve heard the six songs that precede it, it can sound like a less creative version of more of the same.

The song opens with chords played on a jangly light acoustic guitar; I believe this may have a very tight stereo delay, or a stereo chorus (which is really just a modulated delay). This spreads the guitar across the stereo field. An clean electric guitar, again with delay, lightly picks single muted notes. This somewhat suggests a xylophone. When the bass and drums come in, the guitar becomes overdriven and plays high chords echoing across the stereo field with delay. For this song, there are two delays on the main electric guitar: one synched to 1/8 note, the other to a dotted 1/8 note. Throughout the song, The Edge builds picking patterns into this delay that fill the space with rhythmic intensity. At times, this becomes an overwhelming mix of swirling repeating plucks and soaring sonic leads.

The lyrics in this song also make use of repetition. Each verse consists of two stanzas. With the first verse, the first two lines of each stanzas are very similar. The “Desert sky” of the first stanza is like the “Desert rose” of the second. Likewise the second lines of each stanza are “Dream beneath a desert sky” and “Dreamed I saw a desert rose” respectively. This type of repetition is not repeated for the second verse. However, both verses use an AAAa/AAAB rhyme scheme. The third lines of both stanzas in the first verse do make use of internal repetition, with the word “run” in the first stanza and “in” for the second stanza. This is another technique not reused in the second verse.

Desert sky
Dream beneath a desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight

Desert rose
Dreamed I saw a desert rose
Dress torn in ribbons and in bows
Like a siren she calls to me

Radiohead’s “The Bends”

Album cover for Radiohead's "The Bends"

I spent this week with Radiohead’s second album “The Bends” from 1995. This album came out when my senior year of high school was coming to a close. It seems like I heard the song “High and Dry” a bit, but I don’t recall being too aware of this album until the following year. Several of the songs, especially “Just” and “Fake Plastic Trees” became part of the regular soundtrack of my life. It wasn’t so much my choice, though I did love the song. Both Mtv and my friends played “Fake Plastic Trees” with some frequency. Somehow, I managed to not get to know much of this album until this week.

It’s funny how you don’t realize how “of its time” some recordings can be until you listen to them a couple decades later. This album is definitely within the 90s guitar alt-rock genre. Listening to this album made me really realize how influential the Pixies had been on the sound of 90s alternative. I found this especially noticeable in the way the bass is used in these songs. There will be louder sections with drums, guitars, bass, vocals, etc.. and then these will pull back for quieter sections with crispy bass guitar grooves. Anyway…

The song I most know from this album is undoubtedly “Fake Plastic Trees”. In the video, you’ll see singer Thom Yorke riding around the grocery store in the shopping cart. I guess this was just a thing in the 90s, as Jarvis Cocker did it the year before in Pulp’s video for “Common People.” I know there were others, but all I can remember now is an early publicity shot of Marilyn Manson.

Thom Yorke’s quietly strummed acoustic guitar opens the song. Yorke sings sonorously, wet with deep reverb. The lyrics deal with capitalism and artificiality in contemporary society and culture. A sense of humor runs through the lyrics, while they express an emotional mix of disillusionment, emptiness and longing.

A green plastic watering can
For a fake Chinese rubber plant
In the fake plastic earth
That she bought from a rubber man
In a town full of rubber plans
To get rid of itself

The first chorus repeats the line “It wears her out.” This gets modified to “It wears him out.” in the second chorus and finally “It wears me out” for the third and final verse. I like this use of the chorus as a refrain for verses, altered slightly to match the subject of the verse.

The personal turn the songs takes for the final verse, comes even more raw at the end. Yorke closes “Fake Plastic Trees” wistfully singing “If I could be who you wanted all the time.” This reminds me of the chorus “You’re so fuckin’ special; I wish I was special” in their song “Creep.” He gritted his teeth to sardonically deliver that line in the earlier song, spitting it out more as an insult. But in “Fake Plastic Trees” the line comes out as a painful apology for not being enough.

I came to really enjoy the song “Bones,” which follows “Fake Plastic Trees” on the album. It’s probably the most rock n’ roll track. I really like the use of deep tremolo on the overdriven guitar. With each strum in each verse, they drop the speed of the effect as the chord naturally fades out. They disable the effect for chorus. Still, I’ve found with the Rolling Stones and now Radiohead that I really enjoy guitars through tremolo and rotating speaker. It’s particularly exciting when the rhythm of the strumming is in a fight against the tremolo. This can be heard in “Bones” just before each chorus when they they have the speed up.

My favorite track on the album remains “Just.” The song opens with a particularly 90s acoustic guitar riff, much like we would hear later the same year from Oasis. This style of rhythmic strumming was heard a lot during the decade, probably coming from the Pixies and Boston by way of Nirvana.  Radiohead crafted an excellent song here, but what really gets me is the bridge starting halfway into the song. At about 2:28, we hear electric guitar draw the song back in with string noise through tremolo! I would argue that the bridge of “Just” unusually includes another chorus. This comes to a tense climax when Greenwood’s frantically picked ascending lead guitar peaks.. holding a distorted note threatened by impending feedback. The other instruments pull back giving a floating weightless feeling to the moment. Just before feedback overrides the note, Greenwood slides it back and mutes the guitar. A clean guitar brings back the beat of the song with staccato pronunciations. The the band slams us with one last chorus before closing the song by sudden cutting out.