‘In God’s Country’ Sends U2 to the Desert: The Story Behind Every ‘Joshua Tree’ Song
While making The Joshua Tree, the desert was sparking the fires of U2’s imagination – especially Bono’s. The lyrics to one song (“Where the Streets Have No Name”) already had been stirred by the Ethiopian desert, and the singer had then turned to the deserted lands of the American Southwest for inspiration. It is not an accident that the LP carries a title and images from a U.S. desert.
But Bono also latched onto the idea of the desert as a metaphor for Reagan-era politics. Perception was in the eye of the beholder. At worst, the desert is a barren wasteland devoid of life. But if you choose to think more positively, it’s a wide-open canvas rife with possibility.
That’s where “In God’s Country” comes in, with its “desert sky,” “desert rose” and rivers that may “soon run dry.” Although Bono initially wasn’t sure if he was writing about America or Ireland, the Southwestern desert led his way, as did an American icon.
“Eventually I dedicated the song to the Statue of Liberty,” he said in 1987 radio interview. “I wanted to write about America and you know... the dream. The American dream. And I wonder: where are the people that will rise to the challenge? You know, where are the new dreamers?”
When discussing the song and its politics, Bono often points to the third line: “We need new dreams tonight.” “In God’s Country” became a reaction against old ideals, against the cynical and the corrupt.
“I think I was talking about at the time, you know, all these people saying [adopts American accent], ‘I’m a Marxist-Leninist, man’ or you know, ‘I’m into Reagan, Reaganomics’,” Bono said. “These are all old, these are old ideologies, they’re old, and I thought, put off the old, put on the new. Where are the new dreams – where’s the new dreamers?”
In matching words to sounds, U2 made “In God’s Country” one of The Joshua Tree’s more rock-oriented tracks, with blasts of chugging guitar from the Edge. It’s the album’s shortest song, coming in at less than three minutes – notable on an LP full of epics.
“‘In God’s Country’ has a great high-speed feeling about it,” producer Daniel Lanois told Hot Press about the tune. It might have been that particular quality that led it to be chosen as The Joshua Tree’s fourth (and final) single in North America in the fall of 1987.
Although the song hit No. 44 and was a staple on U2’s ’87 tour, “In God’s Country” quickly fell out of favor with the band. Bono liked the words, but has said the Edge didn’t deliver something quite sonically appropriate to accompany his lyrics. The group has only sporadically performed the song in concert since, usually in a ramshackle, acoustic rendition.
“In God’s Country” was given new life more than a decade after The Joshua Tree by a movie that involved both American politics and a desert (this time the one in Iraq). David O. Russell’s Three Kings closed with the U2 track, which mirrors the new beginnings – new dreams? – of the main characters played by George Clooney, Mark Walhberg and Ice Cube.
“I have this feeling of starting over, that things have reached their end, and also this notion that while people always talk about being joined in common wants and aspirations, I’m finding the reverse. Finding we’re united in desperation,” Bono told Mother Jones in 1989. “I dunno, I come back to that line from our song ‘In God's Country’: ‘We need new dreams tonight.’ The job is to dream up a world you’d want to live in.”
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