Today U2 released a four-album collection of remakes of their classic songs. It’s called Songs of Surrender, following the recent releases Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience.
So yeah, they reimagined classic songs (worried yet?). Most of them are calmer or quieter, stripped back to acoustic guitar or piano. In some cases Bono has tweaked the lyrics (he’s often said songs are unfinished and these versions are more of what he intended).
My early takes on these things often change, but here’s my initial reaction:
- Classics: It’s interesting to hear U2 revisit some of their classics and offer a different take. It’s why some live versions are often better than the original recording. But most of these are classics for a reason. “Pride,” “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” “Beautiful Day”? You’re not improving on those songs.
- Old songs: Perhaps the greatest opportunity here is to revisit some old songs and give them a fresh sound. “40” is a good example, sounding a little less jubilant and more contemplative with Bono’s aging vocals. There are a few other older songs, but they didn’t grab me right away. I’m surprised there are so many more classics.
- New songs: Some of U2’s latest albums have been their worst. So this is a good chance to rework some of those so-so takes. And here we have a few successes. “Lights of Home” and “The Little Things That Give You Away” sound good. “Song for Someone” also sticks out, thought not sure it needed a retread.
- Bigger changes: “Bad” and “Walk On (Ukraine)” are songs where I noticed more significant lyric changes. I don’t know if it’s better (time will tell), but it’s interesting. (“Walk On,” specifically, was rewritten to shift away from Aung San Suu Kyi and focus on Volodymyr Zelensky.)
I don’t know if U2 did anything here that’s going to blow anyone away. I’m not sure if they’re going to have any new singles (does they still do singles?) or get the kids interested in an old rock band’s quieter take on their old songs.
And I’m guessing that’s not the goal. This feels like a project for the fans. Or maybe themselves (I can’t image fans were clamoring for this). It reminds me of the album Double Take from the Christian rock band Petra that came out in 2000. It’s maybe interesting to fans, but unnecessary.
What do you do as an aging rock star? U2 has been reinventing themselves for 30 years, and this might be acceptance that they’re getting old. It’s about the opposite of the rock ‘n roll geezer weirdness of “Get On Your Boots” (“sexy boots!”). This album, paired with their Las Vegas residency, seems to indicate a new chapter. A quieter, stripped down, semi-retired chapter.
As much as I love U2, I have to admit it’s disappointing. But I also have to concede their recent albums are far from their best work. They have some great moments here and there, but a lot of it just doesn’t connect.
It’s not fair. A bad U2 song would be a hit for anyone else. I’ll likely play this album a lot because there’s something just good about U2, even when they’re stripped down or not at their best. And what can you expect? Not every album can be Joshua Tree.
I just keep hoping for a Johnny Cash-like late chapter in U2’s career. We’re not there yet.
(This LA Times interview with Bono and the Edge gets at some of these critiques.)