- J. Dylan White
Album Review: U2 - 'Songs of Surrender'
Trading in the large, expansive audio productions their songs typically entail, U2’s “Songs of Surrender” strips the band down to its barest and most fundamental, featuring acoustic and unplugged arrangements of 40 songs from the band’s extensive catalog. The album often limits itself to little more than Bono’s vocals, an acoustic guitar, a piano and a drum kit played with brushes.
“Songs” contains moments of greatness that present an entirely new perspective on old tracks, but also falls prey to a common pitfall of albums fully composed of acoustic renditions: some songs are difficult to produce in an acoustic setting that will adequately invoke the same emotions as the original studio version.
The album follows the November 2022 release of lead singer Bono’s memoir, “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story,” which contains 40 chapters each titled after a U2 song. However, it is not a strict blueprint for the album, as some songs that appear on the record that are not present in the book. The LP spans the breadth of U2’s discography, jumping from tracks found on “Boy,” released in 1980, to “Songs of Innocence” from 2014 within seconds.
The methodology for the choice of tracks to appear on “Songs” is not readily apparent, nor is perhaps the rationale for the entirety of the album. Commercial success is clearly not among the motivations, simply given the extensive time to complete a single listen of the album and the absence of new content.
Additionally, a number of songs on the release are not ones that achieved initial market success or were released as singles. Rather, U2’s purpose appears to be making a proclamation about the band and refuting criticisms of its quality or authenticity.
In the stripped-down setting, the lyrical foundation of each song is brought to the forefront, laid bare for the listener’s examination as Bono exercises a temperance with his vocal stylings matching the setting it appears in.
The opening three tracks of the album, the aptly sequenced “One,” “Where the Streets Have No Name” and “Stories for Boys,” are examples of this phenomenon. Without the drive and intensity the original versions of these songs possess, these renditions feel plodding and slightly lethargic, especially as the introductory tracks to the album.
The issue does not lie with the tempo or pacing of the arrangements of these tracks, but rather with what is done, or not done, to strip them down for “Songs.” With the reduction of the instrumentation for the songs, the soul of the music also appears to be diminished.
The album is at its best when it maintains a trademark sense of Bono’s energy and passion paired with the emotional ferocity that U2 has perfected. “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” and “Out of Control” display this delicate balance and create a flavorful rendition of the two classics that neither are better nor worse than their original counterparts but present a different offering of the same contents.
“Every Breaking Wave,” on the other hand, presents Bono at some of his best vocally on the entirety of “Songs,” and the result is a better track than the version on “Songs of Innocence.” Paired with little more than a piano, Bono croons and makes wonderful use of his falsetto in one of the prominent standouts in the early portion of the record.
“Pride (In the Name of Love)” is the first and one of the only times U2 breaks its own rules for “Songs,” and The Edge makes a noticeable, identifiable appearance with his guitar licks and soloing dancing around the melody and Bono’s lyrics.
“Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” edges toward a folk song, and Bono’s voice opens up a slightly more than elsewhere on the record. Soon following, “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” pulls back the tempo and dials down the intensity but does it correctly with the components missing in the opening three tracks.
“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” pleasantly saunters forward with the folk style in a rousing chorus begging for listeners to sign along, producing another example of a track drastically different from the original but gratifyingly different.
“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” and “Song for Someone” are other standouts in the second half of the album that build upon its successful predecessors’ styles and rank toward the top of the record’s offerings.
The highlight of the entire album, and stowed near its conclusion, is “With or Without You." This rendition presented is haunting and passes much like the ghost Bono’s voice invokes. Although the same song that became a hit No. 1 single, the words seem to drip with the pain and brokenness present in the original but exponentially multiplied.
“Songs of Surrender” is a treasure trove of material that one or two listens will not do proper justice. Due to the wide expanse of tracks, styles and nuances present on the record, each listener will need to discern for themselves what they will retain or discard and will likely shift opinions with each playthrough.
Although not a perfect album, certainly, “Songs of Surrender” lands more hits than it misses and is worthy of consideration and a portion of time, even for those who are only casual fans of U2.