U2: Songs of Surrender

After 50 years as one of the biggest bands in the world, there’s something charming in the way that U2 keeps acting like they have something to prove. We all watched how actors, artists, and musicians handled the pandemic and its lockdown, whether it was Toyah Willcox and husband Robert Fripp staging elaborate dance numbers in their kitchen or St. Vincent drinking martinis and calling random fans live on Instagram. If you’re the Edge, apparently what you do is look at your band’s entire body of work and decide that it’s time to re-record it.

The result is Songs of Surrender, released on St. Patrick’s Day, in 16-track standard and 40-track deluxe versions with at least half a dozen different colored vinyl versions. Although this release is being marketed as a U2 record, it’s truly an Edge solo project that he invited Bono to sing on. Drummer Larry Mullen Jr. and bassist Adam Clayton are on the cover and credited on each track, but it’s been made clear that Adam just recorded a bunch of basslines and left it to Edge to sort through and take what he wanted, while Larry’s participation mostly came via old tape scraps from previous sessions.

In the liner notes and in the press, Edge makes the point, repeatedly, that they recorded a lot of these songs when they were “very young men” and that Bono’s voice is much richer now, so why not re-evaluate them as men in their 60s, with a more refined vocal instrument? There’s also a general narrative voiced by multiple band members that the songs “weren’t finished” and here, now, he finally had the chance to finish them. (That these songs were somehow unfinished will be news to the millions of fans who have sung along to them at the top of their lungs, gotten them tattooed on their arms, or otherwise made them part of their lives for decades.)

Yes, it is true that 1980’s “Stories For Boys” was written when U2 themselves were boys. But that is a valuable perspective: The original is scattershot and impressionistic, more about feeling than precision. The Songs of Surrender version is stripped down to piano with the Edge on vocals, and the lyrics have perhaps more specificity than the original. That subversion, however, does not improve the song at all. In contrast, Pete Townshend wrote “My Generation” when he was 20, and the Who are still out there singing “Hope I die before I get old.”

Likewise, the exercise of switching “Bad”—the band’s 1984 song written about a friend’s struggles with drug abuse—from third person to first person disrespects the song’s original intent. What made that song—about watching friends go through literal life and death situations—one of U2’s best was how well it emotionally communicated the bleakness people felt, the loss and regret and sorrow that Bono manifested in the performance. Altering the lyrics now to put himself in the story doesn’t help it or clarify it or improve it, because he was already there. The fact that he still feels genuinely lucky despite all of the years that have passed doesn’t mean that he should rewrite “Bad.” It just means he should write some new songs.

These types of unnecessary alterations affect pretty much everything else on the record. None of these “re-imaginings” on Songs of Surrender fundamentally transform any of the 40 tracks. The great songs are still great, the re-written lines are interesting suggestions but in most cases, are no more than jarring distractions, and the less-than-great songs (some of which the band only released in the past decade, like “Every Breaking Wave” or “Invisible”) are still exactly what they were before this project.

Then there is the case of “Walk On,” an anthem from 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. Upon release, the band dedicated it to Aung San Suu Kyi, who at the time was a political prisoner in Myanmar. Earlier this year, Bono spoke about being “let down” by her alleged human rights violations, and decided to give the song to someone else. On Songs of Surrender, they’ve taken the song back, retitled it “Walk On (Ukraine),” and rewritten it with references to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy (The song now opens with the line, “If the comic takes the stage and no one laughs”). But “Walk On” was already an inspiring, uplifting anthem about hope and perseverance that exists independent of the association they gave it. They could have dedicated it to the people of Ukraine without changing one word of it.

The more delightful moments on the record start with the Edge’s stunning falsetto take on “Desire,” which turns it into a futuristic, Motown-tinged romp that wouldn’t have been out of place on Achtung Baby. “Dirty Day,” an underrated track from 1993’s Zooropa, subtracts the original’s electronics for cello and a Waits-ian vocal delivery that doesn’t update it so much as make it fit in better with the context of the record. “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” cements its reputation as eternally unbreakable, “Until the End of the World” turns into a well-suited country gospel tune, and both “All I Want Is You” and “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” are still heartrending even in their refashioned states. Elsewhere, Bono gives some phenomenal performances, pushing his voice to its limits, like he does as he soars through “Beautiful Day” and “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own.”

But all of these highlights could have been manifested in a concert or other live performance and issued as a B-side or fan club single; nothing here is unforgettable or in danger of replacing its original. The arrangements are formulaic, regressing back to the stripped-down candlelit era of the original MTV’s Unplugged. At worst, Songs of Surrender is an overindulgence. At best, it’s a pleasant interlude. But it isn’t something that’s going to alter their legacy or the trajectory of their art in any direction, and U2 has always made it clear that we should expect more from them than that.

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U2: Songs of Surrender