Who are today's most respected arena rock acts? The names Bruce Springsteen, Peter Gabriel, Pretenders and Elvis Costello leap to mind, but none -- including Springsteen -- has earned more respect than the Irish band U2.
U2 came out of Dublin in the late '70s, moving from new wave cult status to arena stardom with no loss of moral or musical integrity. Their achievements have included a hit song calling for the union of their strife-torn homeland ("Sunday Bloody Sunday"); and another hit, "Pride (In the Name of Love)," in praise of civil rights martyr Martin Luther King. The group also headlined the highly successful Amnesty International tour last summer, extending their role as a band of conscience.
Now comes their much-awaited album, "The Joshua Tree," to be released later this week. It will be followed by a tour starting on the West Coast in April and moving east in May, including dates in New England and a probable return visit here in the summer or fall.
Their new album will only heighten their respect, for it's their most challenging work to date. It's another spiritual progress report, enwrapped in music that strikes a healthy balance between the lushness of their last album, 1984's "The Unforgettable Fire," and the more volanic rock of their early years. New directions, too, are seen in the sophisticated use of cello and synth orchestrations, plaintive country harmonica and the ever-versatile solos of guitarist David (The Edge) Evans, who still plays with an ethereal, psychedelic feel, but also at times with a metallic burn recalling early Pink Floyd.
The band's overriding concern with spirituality is embedded in the title, ''The Joshua Tree." The title also explains why the album cover shows the group standing in the American desert. The tree they're standing beside -- the only species of tree hardy enough to grow in a desert -- was named a Joshua tree by the Mormons because its angular branches suggested the outstretched arms of Joshua leading them out of the wilderness.
Too overtly symbolic? Perhaps. But the lyrics and music are so wonderfully conceived as to excuse the contrivance.
Moreover, members of U2 disdain preacher roles. They admit they're still in the wilderness, not above it. Witness the album's very first two songs, ''Where the Streets Have No Name" (with bell-like tones from The Edge framing a search for heaven) and the prayerfully hypnotic "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For." These show the band as pilgrims still on a quest; not preachers who claim to have found answers.
This quest takes the band through some grimly realistic terrain. They resurrect the painful memory of Vietnam in the howling, feedback-laced ''Bullet the Blue Sky." It has the unforgettable verse: "And I can see the fighter planes/Across the mud huts as the children sleep." They also paint a graphic portrait of a coal miner in "Red Hill Mining Town": "The coal face cracked/The lines are long/And there's no going back," set to a country beat that flares into rock thanks to the workhorse rhythm section of Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.
Equally powerful is a song sparked by the band's involvement with Amnesty International. Entitled "Mothers of the Disappeared," it has tender, choirlike backup, above which singer Bono declares, "Midnight -- our sons and daughters were taken from us . . . Our sons stand naked through the walls/Our daughters cry/See their tears in the rainfall."
Bono is stirring throughout. He is again encouraged to improvise by producer Brian Eno (who did "The Unforgettable Fire"), but with more positive results. Where last time Bono improvised lyrics -- which occasionally became a problem when he lapsed into awkward mumbling -- here he improvises sounds and cries that amplify the lyrics. His emotional outpouring at the end of "One Tree Hill," a eulogy for road crew member Greg Carroll who died in an accident last year, has a passion on a par with peak-period Otis Redding. The song eventually winds down to a gospel improvisaton that recalls the tenderness of "Amazing Grace," which U2 has often performed in concert.
Recorded back at Windmill Studios in Dublin, where the band did its early records, the album has a contagious optimism despite its often grim subject matter. The most hopeful song is "Trip Through Your Wires," a gently melodic number about being nursed back to health by either a fellow pilgrim, a lover or by God. The exact answer, U2 appears to say, lies in the mind of the listener.
How great is this album? It is easily the most rewarding rock record of the new year. And to call it the best of U2's career would not overstate the case.