Pastor and U2 authority John Cheek takes an in-depth look at the 're-imagined' recordings on the U2 album 'Songs Of Surrender'
Immediately after the release of their oft-underrated 2009 album 'No Line On The Horizon', U2 began to hint that they may be recording and releasing a follow-up during their world tour. They hinted that the title might be 'Songs Of Ascent' and that it could be a meditative, almost worship-like long-player.
This is something that has occasionally been referred to, by both band and media, ever since. Two more studio releases were to then be delivered, 'Songs Of Innocence' and 'Songs Of Experience', both influenced by the unorthodox Christian poet William Blake - he who penned the words of the hymn "Jerusalem". Both albums were in many ways closely-linked, as were the tours that went with them, the i+e tour and the e+i tour. Fans continued to wonder if the band would finally release 'Songs Of Ascent', especially as rumours went around that the band had concentrated on finishing the songs for it during the two-year pandemic.
It seems that each creative period in the U2 canon features a particular trio of albums and that, in the end, has happened here - but not as expected. Instead, just a few months after the publication of lead-singer Bono's landmark autobiography, 'Surrender', comes 'Songs Of Surrender', a collection of tracks that will all be familiar to U2 fanatics and a number that will be known by general music fans everywhere.
It seems that the group are still being reticent about 'Ascent' and instead have chosen to revisit their entire back catalogue and explore certain songs anew. Although there are some store releases containing just 16 tracks, presumably to appeal to the average person who may be interested, this 4-CD album is instead the main event and effectively sees the four band members each selecting 10 tracks. Not surprisingly, "Stay (Far Away, So Close)", Bono's personal favourite song, is included, along with The Edge's "Sunday Bloody Sunday". In the sleevenotes The Edge reveals the motives and the reasons behind the selections. He states, "Once we surrendered our reverence for the original version, each song started to open up to a new, authentic voice of this time... I hope you like our new direction."
Yet, for 'Songs Of Surrender', there isn't the inclusion of "Surrender" from 1983, nor "Moment Of Surrender" from 2009. The nearest we get is "Bad", when, early on, Bono intones, "This is a song of surrender." Many songs are stripped-back and re-arranged and, as with "Bad", many of the lyrics are updated. Regular U2 concertgoers will recognise the ad-libbing and changes brought to the words by Bono when performing live, and here, the lyrics do appear to be more spiritual in tone as a result. It's perhaps most pertinent with "Walk On", a song that was originally dedicated to Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese human rights campaigner and later Prime Minister, whom U2 previously supported until they became disillusioned with her and her failure to defend Muslim refugees within her own borders. The song has been reworked here to instead address the situation in Ukraine and the bravery of those who face the Russian onslaught.
One thing that is noticeable is how little drumming and percussion there is in the collection. During the recording sessions of 2022 the need for surgery to the hands and wrists of drummer Larry Mullen Jr became obvious, a result of decades of drumming. This perhaps explains why an "unplugged" approach to their back catalogue, rather than a desire to break new material, had to be the reality.
The approach doesn't always satisfy. A basic, acoustic take on "Until The End Of The World", for example, is no substitute for the visceral, driving original and the keen fan is left wondering about the inclusion of a number of tracks where there's nothing new added to what are interesting, but inferior, versions.
From "One" to "40", the 40 tracks here are immensely interesting to fanatics, but not to the casual fan. The latter should explore the originals. This album debuted at Number 1 in the British album charts. It features sublime musicianship and singing. The tasteful, arty packaging features white flags. It all evokes memories of when U2 were members of the Shalom Fellowship in Dublin, where the need to surrender the human ego in the pursuit of Holiness was oft-taught. On a compilation that mentions miracles in certain places and the Holy Spirit in others, Jesus and the cross are prominent - and sometimes, simple arrangements and minimalism are appropriate accompaniments to the sound of surrender.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.