The last decade hasn’t been kind to U2. Or rather, U2 haven’t been kind to it. The less said about Songs of Innocence’s (2014) controversial iTunes rollout the better, while its 2017 follow-up, Songs of Experience, was a thoroughly lacklustre affair that even a stellar Kendrick Lamar feature couldn’t save.
Notwithstanding some highlights along the way, it’s safe to say that the quality of U2’s musical output has been in steady decline since the inventive heights of 1991’s Achtung Baby. “At least we have the old stuff,” say many of U2’s disillusioned fans. “At least they can’t touch that…”
…Except, as it turns out, they can. Recorded over lockdown (mainly by frontman Bono and producer/guitarist The Edge), Songs of Surrender delivers “reimagined” versions of forty songs from U2’s huge and varied discography. Each of the four discs is named after a different member of the band, but the song-per-disc designation seems fairly arbitrary, as the forty songs instead correspond with the forty chapters of Bono’s 2022 memoir, Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story.
With acoustic rearrangements of such hits as ‘With or Without You’, ‘Beautiful Day’ and ‘Pride (In the Name of Love)’, as well as deep cuts from every album bar October (1981) and No Line on the Horizon (2009), Songs of Surrender completes the already-maligned Songs of… trilogy by redoing some of their most well-loved tracks, and the results are, perhaps predictably, underwhelming.
It’s not all bad news. ‘Dirty Day’, a jagged slice of experimental rock from 1993’s Zooropa, is utterly transformed by its sparse new arrangement, using cellos, palm-muted guitars and a scattered drum loop to produce an atmosphere of exotic darkness.
On ‘Bad’, The Edge’s signature delay effect arguably sounds better than it did on the original recording, while the shuddering strings and subtle marching snare bring a sense of fizzing excitement; the reworkings of ’11 O’Clock Tick Tock’ and ‘Invisible’ are equally effervescent. ‘Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses?’ also lends itself nicely to the acoustic treatment, as without the original’s cluttered wall of sound, Bono’s vocals are given the space they need to enhance the chorus’s anthemic power. Likewise, ‘Electrical Storm’ is allowed to breathe more than its original recording, although an awkward key change later in the song rather ruins things.
Unfortunately, that key change is symptomatic of the album’s infuriating tendency towards cheese and cliché. It’s not hard to imagine ‘Every Breaking Wave’ playing while a Britain’s Got Talent contestant narrates their tragic backstory, its sad piano chord progression begging for an “inspirational” string crescendo that never arrives. ‘If God Will Send His Angels’ is also turned into a meandering piano ballad, and ‘City of Blinding Lights’ is similarly sleep-inducing.
‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ is also frustrating, as aspects of it work brilliantly, such as its raw, menacing guitar solo, but Bono’s vocals let it down. His unnecessary vocal flourishes, particularly when he plays around with the rhythm of “We can be as one”, sacrifice some of the militaristic urgency that made the 1983 original so powerful. Truth be told, the driving bass on Innocence’s ‘Cedarwood Road’ comes closer to recapturing the atmosphere of War than ‘Sunday’ does.
The production overall leaves something to be desired. Because of Larry Mullen Jr’s reluctance to play drums on the album, most of the percussion comes in the form of loops assembled from old Mullen recordings. ‘Miracle Drug’ and ‘Get Out of Your Own Way’ suffer massively as a result, the latter sounding like an unfinished demo, while ‘The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)’, one of the few saving graces of the Songs of Innocence fiasco, is completely butchered; ‘The Edge’, seemingly embarrassed by the lack of live drums, disciplines Mullen’s loop into the near-inaudible background, resulting in a lazy and flat-sounding instrumental. On ‘The Fly’, meanwhile, U2’s most sinister single is sabotaged by a naff sampling of “groovy” bongo drums.
And by the end of it all you’re left wondering, what was the point? Rarely does something so large and so long amount to something so trivial, but beyond a handful of intriguing arrangements, the new versions are not very enlightening. For those who are understandably daunted by the idea of listening to 165 minutes of U2 massacring their old songs, there is a shorter, 16-track CD version available. Then again, you could just listen to the original albums, which are far better in every conceivable way.