U2 Revisits Its Past, in the Name of … What, Exactly?
With “Songs of Surrender,” an album of 40 reimagined songs, and “A Sort of Homecoming,” a documentary on Disney+, the Irish band pauses to reflect.
For decades, U2 refused to rest on its catalog. A rarity among bands for having kept the same lineup since its formation in 1976 — Bono on lead vocals, the Edge on guitar and keyboards, Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen Jr. on drums — U2 has headlined arenas since the early 1980s. It determinedly brought new songs to huge audiences as recently as 2018, when it mounted its Experience + Innocence Tour.
The band did allow itself a 30th anniversary stadium tour to reprise its biggest release, the 1987 album “The Joshua Tree,” in 2017 and 2019. And now, in the pandemic era, U2 is looking back even further.
Its new album, “Songs of Surrender,” remakes 40 U2 songs with largely acoustic arrangements. U2 has also booked a Las Vegas residency for the fall, when it will revisit its 1991 masterpiece, “Achtung Baby,” in a newly built arena, the MSG Sphere. In a startling change, the band will have a substitute drummer, Bram van den Berg, rather than Mullen, who has been dealing with injuries to his elbows, knees and neck.
Bono, 62, published his memoir, “Surrender,” in fall of 2022, using 40 U2 songs as chapter headings. On St. Patrick’s Day, the (Irish) band is releasing a Disney+ documentary, “Bono & the Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, With Dave Letterman,” alongside “Songs of Surrender.”
U2’s career has been one of triumphs, misfires and moving on. In the 1980s, the group was earnest and expansive, creating a chiming, marching, larger-than-life rock sound that countless bands would emulate. In the 1990s, leery of its own pretensions, U2 remade itself with electronic beats and artifice until it came to a dead end with its 1997 album, “Pop.” In the 2000s, it circled back to rock beats and sincerity, but its music was pervasively infused with the latest technology.
From the beginning, U2 has worked on the largest scale: sometimes to magnificent effect, like its 2002 Super Bowl halftime show that memorialized Sept. 11, and sometimes badly backfiring, like the giveaway of its 2014 album, “Songs of Innocence,” that forced the album into iTunes libraries worldwide, often unwanted. “Songs of Surrender” is an act of renunciation, drastically scaling down songs that once strove to shake entire stadiums.
Remake albums are always fraught. They offer second thoughts rather than discoveries, revisions rather than inspirations. They also remind listeners, and no doubt performers, of time slipping away.
In recent years, extraordinary songwriters like Paul Simon and Natalie Merchant have made albums that revisit their old songs with decidedly different arrangements; they’re thoughtful and musicianly, but wan. Even Taylor Swift’s ongoing series of “Taylor’s Version” remakes — reclaiming her old albums by making every effort to replicate them note for note — can’t quite match her more youthful voice or the precise overtones of every mix.
Among U2’s three retrospective projects, Bono’s book is by far the most vivid. “Surrender” leapfrogs through Bono’s and U2’s improbable story in vignettes that zigzag between poetic and prosaic, devout and skeptical, privileged and conscientious, mystical and political.
The book’s messages about faith, friendship and family are reprised — sometimes in near-literal quotes — in “A Sort of Homecoming.” It’s an awkward project that skims through U2’s career while David Letterman serves as both modest interlocutor and celebrity star-tripper.
The documentary mixes biographical interviews and bits of Ireland’s history, and it stages two performances: a concert by Bono and the Edge with a choir and strings at Dublin’s Ambassador Theater, and a singalong at a pub that’s not exactly impromptu. It just happens to include U2-influenced Irish musicians like Glen Hansard, Imelda May and Dermot Kennedy. “A Sort of Homecoming” also digresses, pointlessly, with attempts at comedy recalling Letterman’s “Late Show” shticks. A new Bono-Edge song, dedicated to Letterman, isn’t exactly prime U2.
“Songs of Surrender” is the weightier project. Like all of U2’s albums, it’s anything but casual; the songs have been minutely reconsidered. Some get different lyrics: changing present tense to past tense in “Red Hill Mining Town,” clarifying that “Bad” is about drug addiction, swapping in new verses in “Beautiful Day” and “Get Out of Your Own Way,” rewriting “Walk On” to allude to the war in Ukraine.
The album sets out to recast U2’s arena anthems as private conversations. Bono croons as if he’s singing quietly into your ear, and most of the arrangements rely on acoustic guitar or piano — like MTV’s old “Unplugged” shows, but by no means devoid of studio enhancements.
“Unplugged” was MTV’s tribute to the recording-business cliché that a great song only needs chords and a voice to reveal its quality, as if everything else is embellishment. Yes and no. Melody, harmony and lyrics say a lot, but production can be transformative. Songs engrave themselves in fans’ memories — and lives — not just for their words and music, but for their sheer sound. We can recognize a favorite oldie from an opening guitar tone or a drumbeat. And the more we’ve taken a song to heart, the more its sonic details resonate.
U2 got together in the era when punk insisted that anyone, trained or not, could make vital music. But even during that movement, musicians and producers understood how much texture matters. Recording in the analog era was a costly, intentional effort, and low-budget, lo-fi recordings could still create high intensity.
One of U2’s enduring strengths has been the way its songs ennoble yearning and turbulence. Bono sings about self-questioning and contradictions with a voice that might scratch or falter but pushes ahead, unabashedly working itself up to shouts and howls. And the band’s martial drums, chiming guitars and inexorable crescendos create arena-size superstructures filled with rhythmic — and emotional — crosscurrents.
The remakes on “Songs of Surrender” often strip away too much. In the original 1983 “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a song that refers to the 1972 massacre of Irish protesters by British soldiers, the track evokes sirens and gunshots while Bono sounds both desperate and furious, right in the middle of the strife. The remake, with a lone acoustic guitar, recasts the song as something between a lullaby and lament, crooned as if it’s a learned memory.
“Out of Control,” which in 1979 had jabbing, buttonholing electric guitar and bass lines, has become a cozy, cheerfully strummed self-affirmation, very much in control. And the surging, cathartic peaks of songs like “With or Without You,” “Vertigo,” and “Pride (in the Name of Love)” are far too muted in the remakes.
“Songs of Surrender” does have a few clever second thoughts about U2’s catalog. A brass band lends historical gravity to “Red Hill Mining Town,” while “Two Hearts Beat as One” — with lyrics that insist, “Can’t stop to dance” — gets a wry disco makeover. The album’s subdued arrangements and upfront vocals offer a chance to focus on lyrics that were obscured in the onrush of U2’s original versions.
But for most of “Songs of Surrender,” less is simply less. What comes across throughout the 40 songs is not intimacy, but distance: the inescapable fact that these songs are being rethought and revived years later, not created anew. Wild original impulses have been replaced by latter-day self-consciousness. And U2, like most artists, is better off looking ahead than looking back.