U2 has always been looking backwards—no popular artist’s history and biography has been as integral to their art as U2’s has—and they are also terrified of their own creative shadow.
This combination of traits is the guiding principle for their album Songs of Surrender, a collection of 40 existing U2 songs that have been completely rearranged, re-recorded, and occasionally rewritten with new lyrics. The album is a loose tie-in with singer Bono’s memoir Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, which came out last fall and was structured around 40 U2 songs, albeit not the exact same list as the ones included on the album.
As a massive U2 fan who is well-versed in their lore, I have long known that guitarist The Edge is a bit of an obsessive self-doubter, frequently holding up the process of releasing an album with remixes and reworkings and even still is not generally satisfied with the results. I just didn’t know that this dissatisfaction extended to perfect albums like The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby.
In fairness to U2 there are a couple hooks to this album of reworks outside of Bono’s memoir and Edge’s insistence on tinkering with U2’s music until the end of time. One of them is that Bono’s voice has changed, both figuratively and literally. He’s a different lyricist and vocalist at 62 than he was at 18, 30, or even 45. This band has seen unprecedented longevity for artists of their ilk, so why not adapt their past into their present? The other is something about how the pandemic stripped away everything from people and yet the world still moved forward, and so, The Edge thought, what if we stripped away everything from our songs, would they still be good songs? (And you know what? That's enough from you, Edge. Moving on.)
Songs of Surrender does occasionally sound great as it features production and arrangement choices that U2 rarely lets themselves make on studio albums, namely keeping things small. Unsurprisingly for an album of remakes, the lesser-known songs included on the album are the ones that shine brightest on a refresh—Zooropa gems “Dirty Day” and “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” are particularly well suited for the lower-key approach to the album.
The stone-cold classics that they dragged from their comfortable resting places on platinum records do not fare as well. The Edge should go to rock star jail for what he did to any song from The Joshua Tree on Songs of Surrender. Additionally, the new lyrics Bono includes are never an upgrade on the ones they replace, only adding wordiness and specificity to lyrics that were effectively impressionistic and concise. His memoir, which is fantastic, is a much better format for him to give the full context for his thoughts on faith and politics than his music is at this point in his career.
Any success that Songs of Surrender finds across its unwieldy tracklist can’t stand up to the question of why it exists at all. U2 has done what no other band has done for a very long time. Raised in an Ireland embroiled in political and religious violence, they found a home for a delicate faith through their art and embarked on a half-century-long journey making pop songs that seek to love God and love the world. U2 is insistent that this work is ongoing—that U2 is a living and breathing thing. There is proof of life on Songs of Surrender, but I find myself measuring the distance between the breaths, wondering if each one might be the last. (Island Records)