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Backtracking

Special to The Times

U2's "The Joshua Tree," one of the most acclaimed albums of the rock era, was released 20 years ago this year, but it just got better.

To celebrate the collection's anniversary, the Universal Music Group has reissued the album in an ambitious new three-disc boxed set, complete with remastered sound, five previously unreleased tracks from the "Joshua Tree" sessions and a DVD featuring a concert from a 1987 tour and more.

Each band member (as well as others associated with the project) reflects in liner notes on the making of the album that elevated U2 to a place alongside Bruce Springsteen in the 1980s for making rock 'n' roll that could sell millions of copies and yet retain its integrity and craft.

In his comments, Bono notes that the album was initially going to be called "The Two Americas." He explains: "Two Americas, the mythic America and the real America -- harsh reality alongside the dream. It was prosperous and it was parched and I began to see this era as a spiritual drought. I started thinking about the desert, and what came together was quite a clear picture of where I was at personally -- a little off-kilter in my emotional life but very much waking up as a writer and as a commentator on what I saw around me, my love of America and my fear of what America could become."

Reading this and other passages, you wonder how much of it Bono really had in focus when U2 recorded the album and how much of it has become clear to him (and the others) only in the years since. Whatever, the comments in the album's accompanying hardback volume underscore what can be gained when quality artists look back on their work.

U2

"The Joshua Tree"

(Island/Interscope)

The back story: When the Clash toured with the Who in 1982, it was tempting to think of their concerts as a passing of the torch from one rock generation to another. But the Clash fell apart and that mantle of new leadership fell to U2, whose triumphant tour in connection with its "War" album a year later exhibited the invigorating and inspiring qualities demanded of anyone who is to serve as a voice of its age.

Sensing the challenge at hand, U2 turned away from the easily grasped slogans and other rallying points of "War" to a more tentative and reflective mood in its follow-up album, "The Unforgettable Fire." It was as if the band needed time to develop its art and its own mental toughness. The band reflected both qualities in "The Joshua Tree."

Even fans of the band were surprised by the sometimes breathtaking signs of musical growth in the album. Its opening five songs -- "Where the Streets Have No Name," "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Searching For," "With or Without You," "Bullet the Blue Sky" and "Running to Stand Still" -- rank favorably with any great five-song album sequence in rock history.

From the infectious, cinematic sprawl of "Streets" to the unsettling despair of "Running," the music challenged, inspired and comforted, and Bono's lyrics acknowledged going through life's disillusionment without needing to sacrifice one's faith. "The Joshua Tree" sold more than 10 million copies in the U.S. and became the first pure rock album since "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" to win a Grammy for album of the year.

The contents: The first thing you notice listening to the album again is how well the other songs hold up, especially "In God's Country" and "Exit." It's also illuminating in the DVD to see how passionate the band was on stage in Paris on July 4, 1987, and realize that one reason U2 has continued to be such a valuable band is that it is still every bit as passionate onstage now.

The bonus CD, which contains nearly an hour of rare tracks and unreleased material, lets us compare the stark, blues-drenched version of "Silver and Gold" that Bono recorded with Keith Richards and others for the "Sun City -- Artists Against Apartheid" album in the '80s with the band's own, more colorfully designed version.

Still, the highlight of the second disc is the unreleased material, including one number, "Wave of Sorrow (Birdland)," that is on a par with the "Joshua Tree" material. "Desert of Our Love" (a.k.a. "Weather Girls") is the track that, with different words, eventually became "I Still Haven't Found . . . ."

About the song, the Edge notes that "Desert" was the first breakthrough of the "Joshua Tree" sessions. "A mix of reggae and gospel rhythms, it was never going to be an ordinary song," he says of the unreleased tune.

All too often, we have to rely on secondary sources when reconstructing the birth of an album. Here, U2 takes us through the process personally. The good news is U2 is planning to update all its albums in similar fashion.

"The Joshua Tree" may have been the Irish quartet's finest hour, but every step in their grand journey has been rewarding. The album is also available in a single-disc edition (just "Joshua Tree") and in a "deluxe" edition that includes just the two audio discs.

N.W.A

"Straight Outta Compton"

(Capitol/Priority)

A Backtracking column earlier this year detailed the enormous influence of this album in popularizing gangsta rap. So, the only thing to add here is that the new anniversary package includes five bonus tracks, including a live version of "Compton's N the House" and cover versions of "Straight Outta Compton" tracks by Bone Thugs-N-Harmony ("F--- Tha Police"), Snoop Dogg and C-Murder ("Gangsta Gangsta") and Mack 10 ("Dopeman").

Backtracking, a biweekly feature, focuses on CD reissues and other pop culture items of historical interest.

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