Legend has it that when U2 were finished making The Joshua Tree, they went to Kirsty MacColl, and asked her how the album should be sequenced. MacColl put the tracks in the order she liked them best, from her favourite to the worst (we don’t know where, or if, she drew the line between the good and the bad ones). “With Or Without You” came in third.

I like this story, not just for MacColl’s winning pragmatism but because she got it largely right. The Joshua Tree became U2’s breakthrough from stardom to megastardom partly because it opens with a trio of shimmering desert mirages which are somehow also stadium rock bangers, as fine a statement of “This is what we’re doing now” as any band has managed.

One of the crucial things about them – it’s why “Take Me To The Clouds Above” works – is that those songs aren’t exactly working as songs. If anything, the Joshua Tree singles are settings – the Edge and Lanois are taking chords and building spires of yearning out of them, and the fact that the prayers being offered from those spires are those of Bono Vox are somewhat coincidental.

Each of those three songs led to a hit cover – a good sign that U2 was onto something. (Sadly the trail ends there – nobody has yet risen to the challenge of putting a donk on “Bullet The Blue Sky”) The Chimes’ “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” was first, which won Bono’s approval, probably because it took him seriously as a gospel songwriter. But it loses the actual wilderness spirituality in U2’s original, which for me is all in the hazy landscape and not in the prophet bellowing his way through it.

Next the Pet Shop Boys took on “Where The Streets Have No Name”, combining it with hi-NRG classic “I Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in a gentle early test of the 90s’ U2’s commitment to postmodern spectacle. The Pet Shop Boys’ record is one of their best, keeping the surging, revelationist underpinnings of U2’s song and marrying them to more profane desires: the spliced tracks complete each other in tender and delightful ways.

And here, thirteen years later, is another mash-up, ticking off the third Joshua Tree hit, “With Or Without You”, by reducing it to its purest form: those plangent, drifting notes the Edge spins the song around. It’s Bono’s best performance of the three in its original, but no matter: producers LMC junk him entirely, words and tune, putting in a resung verse hook from Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know?”. A hook that in any case catches some of the same trembling uncertainty in the face of love’s enormity.

Or it does when Whitney sings it. Rachel McFarlane’s pedigree providing vocals for the likes of N-Trance points to how she approaches “Take Me To The Stars Above”, turning it into a no-nonsense clubland belter. This absolutely boosts its commercial potential and I doubt we’d be discussing it if it wasn’t for what she does – but it blunts some of the emotional edges on this particular combination, replacing romantic faith and doubt with a forthright conviction. (Maybe it’s just that matching Whitney for nuance is a really hard job for anyone.)

What we’re left with is a mash-up which makes exactly the right decisions as to which parts of its songs to snatch but which then uses them in a way that’s a bit too brusquely workmanlike to completely satisfy. This is something we’ll see a lot in club music number ones for the rest of the 00s (and beyond) – records which are as good as they need to be and no better. Or as Adam Clayton put it in a review shorter than mine but just as accurate, “It’s got a good beat, you can dance to it.”

Score: 6

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