U2’s Songs of Surrender: Another Creative Reinvention

I have to confess my vexed relationship with U2’s catalog since 1991’s Achtung Baby, which remains my favorite U2 album to this day — but I won’t say it’s their best. U2’s best album is unidentifiable given the range of musical styles covered in their 43 year recording history. I would say that diversity of styles, in itself, caused a problem of expectations in me. My responses to every album since Achtung Baby vacillated between What were they thinking? and Egad I’m bored — for about a year. Then, inevitably, I’d listen to the album again and think, “This is really good music.” It’s happened to me literally every time with every album from Achtung Baby to the present, although it took a bit longer with 2017’s Songs of Experience, which was a painfully blah album for me on my first listen but which, as of yesterday, I have decided is also pretty good. I just want to reorder the songs. Yes, I can see ups and downs in their catalog. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000) is now, to me, one of their masterpieces while How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004) seems a little incoherent even though I enjoy it a great deal, almost as much as any other U2 album, and I still feel like I need a bit more time with No Line on the Horizon (2000) before I’ll fully appreciate it. But I think this diffidence is the product of their aesthetic choices. I think their message is as deliberately unformed as the horizon on the album cover.

But, I’ve learned. I’ve learned not to mistake an album that meets my expectations, or not, for an album that is good… or not, especially in the case of U2. Before listening to Songs of Surrender, released just this year on St. Patrick’s Day, I committed to accepting it on its own terms. And it’s a good thing I did, because this album represents their biggest musical departure from the rest of their catalog at least since Zooropa (1993), if not in their entire career. There are no new songs on this album, but it feels like we’re hearing entirely new songs from a completely new band. The full version of the album includes 40 songs (each band member selected ten) rewritten musically, and sometimes lyrically, in a style most people will identify with MTV’s unplugged era. But I believe that’s an overly simplistic view of this work. It’s certainly true that most songs are reimagined for acoustic guitar, but calling it unplugged just doesn’t cut it. These songs are dependent upon a single guitar, sometimes a single piano, and sometimes with strings added. Lyrics are sometimes rewritten, as is tempo, but most significantly, their rhythm section has been reduced to providing texture for songs that are now almost fully invested in a single instrument and vocal. These songs have been fully reinvented, not just performed acoustically.

When Nirvana went acoustic for what became their famous last album, their performance on MTV’s Unplugged, producers were concerned about the volume of Dave Grohl’s drums. Acoustic or not, Nirvana performed rock songs that night. Sidelining U2’s rhythm section — which is one of the greatest rhythm sections in rock and roll, ever — is perhaps the album’s most dangerous move. But on this album, U2 set out to take these songs completely out of rock and roll as much as possible, stripping them down to voice and melody. As simple as I’m making these songs sound, I also feel that Bono and the Edge are being stretched musically. They stretch their vocal range to a heavier reliance on falsetto than before, a risky move for most grown men in their 60s, especially with their vocal range, and the Edge stretches his guitar playing as well, seeking new tones dependent on careful fingerwork rather than effects and volume. I have more respect for the Edge as a guitarist after listening to this album.

All of the songs work. Some of them stand out, and some will work better for some people than for others. That’s the nature of musical performance. But I believe this album is another U2 masterpiece alongside War, Joshua Tree, Achtung Baby, and All That You Can’t Leave Behind, a judgment that will be reinforced by repeated, careful listening. It’s not an album that’ll play well if you’re looking to be entertained while you’re doing something else, or if you’re expecting arena rock, or punk rock, or good alternative.

Because the album is subdued, I’m a bit worried about what some reviewers will do to it. U2 has become too much of a reviewers’ punching bag, and too many reviewers can’t be trusted to actually evaluate an album’s music. Reviews of Songs of Innocence, for example, focused almost entirely on its distribution (thank Apple for that well-intentioned mess), and when the music was mentioned at all, it’d get a sentence or two along the lines of, “It’s really not that bad an album.” That’s not an album review. That’s a promotion and distribution review. Henry Rollins wrote all we need to hear about the album’s distribution, and the rest should have been focusing on the music itself, which is what an album review should do. Let Henry Rollins remain our punk curmudgeon. He’s the master. We don’t need more of them, though, especially if they’re only half or one third his age.

Reviews on the internet are also dependent upon clickbait writing, which rewards good reviews, and which is intended to make sure the writers stay inside the mean girls club and not outside it, a place they fear to be. Our discursive environment rewards controversy, big claims, attention getting headlines, and wow what a great album is almost never that. Our environment, in other words, rewards bad reviews and disinformation, which isn’t good if we want intelligent evaluation of our cultural products.

So I can only imagine some of the headlines —

  • U2 reimagines its catalog… as performed by Burt Bacharach.
  • U2 rewrites its top songs… and makes them all boring.
  • U2 loses its mind again.
  • U2 proves that it’s getting old.

As of this writing, I’ve only read one review of Songs of Surrender, and that’s by Pitchfork’s Caryn Rose. I’m citing it here because I think it’s an honest review worth reading. She has some songs she likes, some she doesn’t, and appreciates the album’s strengths. But at the same time, I’d like to question some of her implicit assumptions:

  • First: rewriting a song should improve the song: “That subversion, however, does not improve the song at all.” But why? Any rerecording invites comparison with the original version of the song, but this album is a musical left turn, not an advance on their previous sound. There’s no reason to think that any rerecording here should replace what’s already been done, either in the studio or live, as Rose seems to think: “nothing here is unforgettable or in danger of replacing its original.” It doesn’t have to pose that danger to be good on its own, so I think this expectation misunderstands the album’s intent.

    Can’t artists reconceive a song so completely that it can’t be compared to the original? Covers of other artists’ songs tend to take on a number of forms. Some bands just reperform someone’s original. The band will inevitably stamp their sound on it, but it’s not a reinvention, and in some cases, that’s the point. I saw one band match Van Halen lick for lick, and Zeparella, an all-female Led Zeppelin cover band, do the same with Zeppelin. Matching the original, in these cases, was an impressive achievement on its own. In other cases, however, these reperformances take over the original. Aretha Franklin’s cover of “Respect” replaced Otis Redding’s original, but it’s only a replacement because they were both performing in the same genre at the same time. But other times, a cover reinvents the song. The Talking Heads’ version of “Take Me to the River” will never replace Al Green’s original, just as Devo’s cover of “Satisfaction” will never replace the Stones’ original. In both of those cases, the band’s covers emphasized the newness of their sound. They were reinventions. They weren’t competing with the original. They were creating something new, and their covers of classic rock or rhythm and blues songs were meant to illustrate that fact. U2 does the same kind of work with their own songs on Songs of Surrender.
  • Next, the rerecording should remain faithful to the original context: “the re-written lines are interesting suggestions but in most cases, are no more than jarring distractions.” They’re only a distraction if you’re expecting the original song. This idea expresses the music review equivalent of complaints about the live action Ghost in the Shell or Cowboy Bebap. Fans want their product untouched or made a better version of what they already were… somehow.
  •  They have to make some kind of “fundamental transformation”: “None of these ‘re-imaginings’ on Songs of Surrender fundamentally transform any of the 40 tracks.” I’m truly at a loss here, because what Rose describes as songs that work sound like a musical transformation to me:

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.”

How can “Desire” be turned into a “futuristic, Motown-tinged romp” without being “fundamentally transformed”? All of these songs have been transformed from rock to something comparable to an intimate indie album that could have been released by Devendra Barnhart. But I think we see what’s going on from her first comments: “wouldn’t have been out of place on Achtung Baby,” which were reinforced by her comments about “Dirty Day.” She praises the rerecording because it “doesn’t update it so much as make it fit in better with the context of the record.” Two other songs are “still heartrending.” Notice the word “still.” That’s it. That’s what she wants — rerecordings that “fit in better with the context of the [original] record.” And notice the word “update”: did she really want U2 to reduce their songs to dance track abortions like “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John and Brittany Spears? Her expectations are that these songs shouldn’t be rerecorded except as improvements of the original that maintain their original aesthetic effect so well they could replace the song on the original album and make the album better in doing so. She doesn’t want the songs rewritten or reimagined but just improved along the lines of what we expect when we see a new and improved sticker on anything.

That’s just not what this album set out to be, and I’m glad U2 had better judgment. Complaining that it doesn’t do this work is a statement about the reviewer’s expectations and preferences, not the album itself. But I think Bono understood the issues involved. His liner notes on iTunes describe how his songs feel to him now after a decades-long recording history:

People say your songs are like your children. Wrong: Your songs are like your parents. They tell you what to do, how to dress. But after a while, if you’re successful, songs become big. They’re owned by other people, not you. And with this collection, we were sort of trying to listen to them again and trying to think, well, first of all, will they hold up? Will they stand up to being broken down outside of the firepower of a rock ‘n’ roll band like U2?

Caryn Rose, who I want to emphasize did write a perceptive review, unintentionally validates Bono’s claims about his songs. She feels like she owns them, not U2, or that their original form should dictate to the band what they can or can’t do with them, so that the songs own the band, not the band the songs. The band, however, wasn’t buying it. They wanted to own these songs again, not to have these songs own them. And they did.

The most remarkable thing about this album is the intensity of emotional effects communicated through a more subdued performance, which poses a very different but still real danger for me. By stripping these songs down to melody and vocal performances, the barest essence of these songs, they’re making their original post-punk, alternative, and arena rock songs sound like hype. I feel like I’ve been loving the noise and power but not the music all along. I’m not saying these rerecordings could ever replace the original. I’m saying they make me want to reject the entire original genres. The linked review of Songs of Innocence above expresses a desire for a stripped down U2 punk album. Something that won’t play in an arena but in a pub. I loved reading that — I’ve felt that way for years. I still want it. U2’s Songs of Surrender isn’t the stripped down punk I want, but it gives us an opportunity to love U2’s music without hype, volume, and crowds. Let it do that for you.


Published by James Rovira

Dr. James Rovira is higher education professional with twenty years experience in the field in teaching, administration, and advising roles. He is also an interdisciplinary scholar and writer whose works include fiction, poetry, and scholarship exploring the intersections of literature and philosophy, literature and psychology, literary theory, and music and literature.. His books include Women in Rock, Women in Romanticism (Routledge, 2023); David Bowie and Romanticism (Palgrave Macmillan, 2022); Writing for College and Beyond (a first-year composition textbook (Lulu 2019)); Reading as Democracy in Crisis: Interpretation, Theory, History (Lexington Books 2019); Rock and Romanticism: Blake, Wordsworth, and Rock from Dylan to U2 (Lexington Books, 2018); Rock and Romanticism: Post-Punk, Goth, and Metal as Dark Romanticisms (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); and Blake and Kierkegaard: Creation and Anxiety (Continuum/Bloomsbury, 2010). See his website at jamesrovira.com for details.

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