NEW YORK — By reimagining 40 of their best-known songs, U2 recognized that many fans would experience them through headphones connected to a device in their pockets — rather than glued to the stage.
That was one thought behind “Songs of Surrender,” out this week. The four men of U2, now either 61 or 62, revisit material written in some cases when they were little more than kids outside Dublin.
Especially in those days, U2’s songs were mostly written with concerts in mind. Edge told The Associated Press in an interview that U2 wanted to grab the attention of people seeing the band for the first time, perhaps at a festival or as an opening act.
“There’s a kind of gladiator in live shows when you’re in that situation,” he said. “The material has to be quite bold and even intense at times. With this redesign, we thought it would be fun to look at intimacy as a new approach, that intimacy would be the new punk rock, so to speak.”
The Edge were the driving force behind “Songs of Surrender”, using the pandemic downtime to record much of the music at home.
Given that Bono’s electric guitar and voice are U2’s musical signature, there’s a certain irony that the guitar isn’t the most immediately noticeable feature of the new releases. He mainly plays keyboards, acoustic guitar and drums.
The process started without a roadmap or commitment to end it if it didn’t work.
“As we got into it and got into a groove, we really started to enjoy what was going on,” he said. “There was a lot of freedom in the process, it was happy and fun to take those songs and kind of reimagine them and I think that’s what happens. It doesn’t sound like it took a lot of hard work because it didn’t.”
Much of the intimacy comes through Bono’s voice. He doesn’t need to shout, so he sometimes uses lower registers or slips into falsetto.
The lyrics are often rewritten, sometimes extensively even in a recent song like “The Miracle of Joey Ramone”. Some changes are more subtle but still noticeable: replacing “a man betrayed with a kiss” with “a boy will never be kissed” takes Jesus out of “Pride (In the Name of Love).”
At the same time, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is rearranged to end with a question: “Where is the victory that Jesus won?”
Cellos replace the driving guitar of “Vertigo”. The keyboards give “Where the Streets Have No Name” an atmospheric sound. “Two Hearts Beat as One”, the original high-octane dance rock song, now has a sassier, sexier vibe and is one of four songs on which The Edge take lead vocals.
The band is fairly democratic in taking songs from their entire catalog, although 1981’s ‘October’ and 2009’s ‘No Line on the Horizon’ are not represented. “New Year’s Day,” “Angel of Harlem,” and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” are among the songs left alone.
“We’re one of the only acts that have that body of work where a project like this would be possible, with the distance of time and experience where it would be interesting to revisit the early songs,” The Edge said.
Throughout music history, bands have occasionally re-recorded material for contractual reasons. Taylor Swift is the most famous example, releasing new versions of her older songs to control their usage. Squeeze’s ‘Spot the Difference’ makes it clear how they tried to make the new recordings indistinguishable from the originals.
Live recordings and archive clean-up projects, such as Bob Dylan’s bootleg series, give fans a chance to hear familiar songs differently.
Many older artists don’t see the point in making new music, since there are few opportunities to be heard and fans are partial to the familiar stuff anyway, said Anthony DeCurtis, editor of Rolling Stone.
“Rethinking your work in a creative way is a means of maintaining interest in your career,” DeCurtis said. “Older fans might not be interested in another compilation of your hits, but reworking them in a meaningful way could prove tempting. Younger fans don’t have the same investment in your classics, so these new releases offer a path through your catalog.”
Edge encourages fans to try out the new releases, suggesting they might even like some of them.
“I don’t think there’s any competition between these and the original versions,” he said. “It’s more of an add-on than a replacement. If you like the new covers, that’s great. If you prefer the originals, keep listening.
“There is no problem at all,” he said. “Both apply.”
Edge said he’s working on new music for U2, “and we’ve got some great stuff in the works.”
The quartet met in drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s kitchen. when they answered an ad posted on a high school bulletin board is a remarkable story of longevity. A passage towards the end of Bono’s book Surrender, where he talked about looking around the stage at the end of their most recent tour in 2019 and wondering if it was the end, naturally raised questions about how long U2 would go on .
“There are many reasons why U2 have stayed together for so long, but one of the main reasons is that it works so well for us as individuals,” The Edge said. “I think we all shine our brightest as part of this collective. I certainly wouldn’t want to hang up the guitar.”
This year will provide a test for a band that can count on one hand how many times it has performed without all four members. U2 have committed to a string of shows in Las Vegas without Mullen, who is recovering from surgery.
Would U2 continue if one of the original quartet decided it was time to call it quits?
“I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of us moving forward with different members,” The Edge said. “But I could also imagine that we decide not to. It would be a big challenge. But I think at that moment we would know what was right.”