Analogue Music | U2 - Songs of Surrender
U2 - Songs of Surrender

U2 - Songs of Surrender

Artist: U2 · Written by Mark Geil

Date Released

23 March, 2023



On St. Patrick’s Day 2023, U2 released their biggest collection of songs to date.

In case you missed it, the 40 Songs of Surrender are new, mostly-acoustic versions of previous releases, loosely tied to the song-as-chapter-title motif in Bono’s excellent memoir, Surrender. (They’re all-in on the gimmick—the set starts with “One” and ends with “40.”) The band teased the new release with a few advance singles, starting in January with “Pride (In the Name of Love).”

I’m a decades-long U2 fan (and sometimes U2 apologist) who still looks forward to each new release, and I was particularly eager to hear this reimagined set of beloved songs. But then I heard “Pride,” and I became very worried. There is a special on Disney+ chronicling Elton John’s farewell concert at Dodger Stadium. In the preamble, people mention over and over that Elton’s voice has grown so much with time, and how the songs are so much better because of that. Then the concert follows, and Elton’s falsetto is gone—he ducks under note after note—leaving him to sound like the septuagenarian he is.

Bono, 13 years younger than Elton, has suddenly started looking old, but he hasn’t sounded particularly old to me—until the first releases of Songs of Surrender rolled out. The arrangements dropped the keys and limited the range, tricks usually done to protect a singer who is losing his instrument. And then I heard Edge saying how Bono’s voice had grown with time, and I was afraid it was Elton all over again, and we’d get 40 songs “reimagined” because the singer can’t sing them anymore.

Fortunately, my fears were unfounded. Let’s get this out of the way first: vocally, Bono is just fine. Sure, some of the songs are in lower keys, and some of the arrangements are flatter, but the range is still there when needed, and ultimately Edge was right. I happened to hear “Electric Co.” from Boy in the middle of listening to Songs of Surrender, and it was jarring. Older Bono really does have a richer emotional vocal palette along witih an earned wisdom that informs these songs in new ways. To wit: “Out of Control,” or “Every Breaking Wave.”

"Older Bono really does have a richer emotional vocal palette along witih an earned wisdom that informs these songs in new ways."

I have purposefully avoided reviews of the project because nobody knows how to review U2 anymore (he says, as he writes a U2 review). Many will criticize the project, happily relegating the band to some dad-rock group that warrants the a priori disdain once reserved for Nickelback. (Seriously, I read an article about U2’s clandestine visit to play a little gig in war-torn Ukraine and the conclusion amounted to, “ was a nice gesture, but seriously, it was so U2.”) Others will polemicize all U2 past the point of Achtung Baby, barely giving it a shot because some of it is genuinely bad but mainly because of nostalgia. Still others remain so personally offended by the iTunes thing that they’ll simply never forgive the band for their apparent hubris.

It’s like all reviews have so much snark or baggage that there’s zero chance of an unbiased opinion. Maybe that’s fair. All critique is biased to some extent. But “U2-biased” is in another league. To some extent, I think “U2-bias” has weighed down much of their work in the new millennium. They’ve needed to take their own advice and get out of their own way.

Can Songs of Surrender accomplish that?

The answer is mixed. In some cases, these are spectacular new tellings of familiar stories that reveal provocative depth. The lyrical tweaks are sometimes exactly right. Edge’s acoustic guitar playing is a revelation. Sure, he should be a good acoustic player—he’s the Edge—but his signature sounds are all electric. As it turns out, he has a distinctive acoustic style, with ringing b and high-e strings and sharp down-strums.

And don’t assume “acoustic” means these are all bare-bones arrangements. “Red Hill Mining Town” is downright orchestral, and the album includes at various points a children’s choir, dulcimer, brass, synths, and keyboard bass that will rattle your subwoofers.

“Peace on Earth” is a telling example of what these new versions are capable of. I never liked the original, mainly because of the list of names: “They're reading names out over the radio / All the folks the rest of us won't get to know / Sean and Julia, Gareth, Ann and Brenda / Their lives are bigger than any big idea.” At first, I wrote it off as lazy songwriting—random names to get the syllables and rhyme pattern right—but then I realized I was bothered more by my own projected impression of insincerity. Bono is a champion of big ideas. He’s an activist on the biggest stages with the biggest world leaders, and that’s so very commendable. But it never felt right for him to read names out to me (which is really on me, not on him). Yet in Edge’s telling, the song is transformed. It’s painfully sincere, and it becomes an emotional Psalm of lament. Now, I hear the names and imagine the Evans family wondering if they knew any of these families, and my cynicism is replaced by sadness.

Then there are some songs in the middle. “I Will Follow” is a brilliant update. The retrospective lyrics mean even more when informed by Bono’s book. The instrumentation is bright. But goodness, it just aches for Larry’s drums. “Walk On” is effectively updated as an anthem for Ukraine, but really needs to be a stadium-filler.

On the downside, there are some vocal affectations that become annoying; they’re fun seeing once in a concert but steal the spotlight on an album version. The languid “Fly” loses too much punch. The falsetto on “Desire” feels gratuitous, even by U2 standards. And there’s one more thing. Forty songs is a lot! Even when the sparse arrangements are brilliant, there are just so many of them. They’re better in small doses.

"They should be taken at face value: alternate versions that add perspective, and sometimes depth, to a fairly random sampling of the band’s oeuvre."

Some on social media have called these versions “boring.” These might be the same people who hear Springsteen’s Nebraska and muse, “It’s not really much like ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ is it?” Nonetheless, I see where they’re coming from. U2 was writing gigantic songs full of sound and fury to fill arenas long before Muse and The Killers, and in many cases, the acoustic renditions on Surrender feel defused, even neutered.

This raises the pivotal question: are these songs an indication that U2 no longer intend to deliver bombastic arena shows, or—and this would be entirely fair—that they are no longer capable? For the time being, perhaps yes. The rhythm section is absent, after all. But for the long term, this is still a relatively young band by classic rock standards, and they seem fully intent on bringing the noise. So it’s safe to say these songs are no harbingers of the future. Nor are they replacements or their originals. Instead, they should be taken at face value: alternate versions that add perspective, and sometimes depth, to a fairly random sampling of the band’s oeuvre.

And after all, that’s more than we’re getting from Taylor Swift. Most or the (Taylor’s version) songs are note-for-note replicas of the originals (“All Too Well” notwithstanding—back off, Swifties), created for unabashedly financial purposes. In that light, these (Edge’s version) songs are far richer. They are not replicas and not replacements. They are an unexplored wing of an exhibit on the band, and I’m quite enjoying my time there.