Photo Credit: Kurt Iswarienko
When Taylor Swift decided to re-record some of her earlier albums (most recently, Red), she was a woman on a mission. “I do want my music to live on,” she told Billboard in 2019. “I do want it to be in movies, I do want it to be in commercials. But I only want that if I own it.” On Songs of Surrender, legendary Irish rock band U2 is the next major act to follow the trend of re-recording their own material. But where Taylor felt a need to make the music her own both artistically and as the businesswoman she is, U2’s target feels less pronounced. Albums such as 1983’s War, 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire, 1987’s The Joshua Tree, 1991’s Achtung Baby, and their late-career highlight All That You Can’t Leave Behind from 2000 are all deservingly rock ‘n’ roll monuments of their era in no need of any rejuvenation.
But apparently, guitarist the Edge, bored and lonesome during the pandemic – like all other top-level celebrities who didn’t have to spend those years worrying about their finances – decided that it was time for a re-write of their classics. And since other musical legends like Randy Newman, Cat Stevens / Yusuf, and Mike Oldfield did it – why couldn’t U2 do it? But U2 were never unhappy with what they produced. Their songwriting was never “too limited,” like Stevens’ on Tea for the Tillerman, or guided under the wings of a mega-business that prevented them from following their ambitions.
So, where does Songs of Surrender falter? To start with, the arrangements are stripped to the bones, lacking any of the Edge’s distinctively airy guitar playing and Adam Clayton/Larry Mullen Jr.’s solid backbeat, making it sound like a passable Tiny Desk concert but a little too unfinished and sparse to eventually end up as a live album release – and ever more so as a proper studio album. And then they gave us 165 minutes and 50 seconds of it.
At its best, the record sounds okay. “Every Breaking Wave” was the only song I enjoyed on 2014’s Songs of Innocence, and the piano rendition on Songs of Surrender is pretty alright. On “Stories for Boys” – another piano ballad – originally a post-punk track from their 1980 debut album Boy, U2 actually sound wiser and more experienced than they did 43 years ago.
However, the remaining 42 tracks really serve no purpose to their catalog. “Pride (In the Name of Love)” never needed to fade out with a guitar solo. “With or Without You” never needed Bono singing in five different various octaves in the same verse. And U2’s best song of all time – the anti-drug message “Bad” – certainly didn’t need the Edge singing on the vocally impressive outro. Actually, when you’re having the 140th greatest vocalist of all time (according to Rolling Stone Magazine’s recent list) in your band, why would you let the guitarist sing their best hits? Or, in fact, when you already have one of rock’s greatest discographies in store – why would you re-record it as if they would be unproduced YouTube covers?