- 16 Mar 23
40 songs from their back catalogue, re-imagined, reborn and re-loved
When your back catalogue includes some of the most celebrated, loved and revered albums of the last 43 years, it would be easy to rest on your laurels; to essentially become a legacy act and tour your greatest hits every couple of years to top-up the pension fund. But U2 have always been more than a legacy band. In the history of rock ‘n’ roll, perhaps only David Bowie has reinvented himself more often, and as successfully, as the Dublin quartet.
First there was the metamorphosis from new wave/post-punk upstarts to the brooding stadium rock of The Unforgettable Fire; through the full-on American love story of The Joshua Tree and Rattle & Hum; the postmodern European rebirth of Achtung Baby!; the born-again hit machine of All That You Can’t Leave Behind; and the soul-searching elder lemons of their more recent Songs Of Innocence and Experience.
Tying in with Bono’s highly enlightening – and entertaining – memoir (about three quarters of the tracks match those referenced in the book), these 40 re-imagined songs cover U2’s entire career. For the most part, these are more intimate, often acoustic readings of the classic texts, although some veer in a vastly different direction to the originals.
“Most of our work was written and recorded when we were a bunch of very young men,” explained Edge in an open letter to fans. “Those songs mean something quite different to us now.”
They have also tampered with the lyrics on a few songs that Bono admitted in Surrender were “never quite written.” Thus, Boy’s big two are given more than a make-over. The guitars on ‘I Will Follow’ chime rather than challenge, while the lyrics reference “a reflection of a boy I could never be.” ‘Out Of Control’ turns from anthem of adolescent mutiny to yearning reminiscence, with the former teenage rebels pondering their end, Bono musing, “Someday I’ll die / the choice will not be mine / It’s never too late / You can always fight fate.”
We get a whole new verse in ‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’, wherein the singer opines “Religion is the enemy of the Holy Spirit guide/ And the battle just begun/ Where is the victory Jesus won?” The stunning ‘Beautiful Day’ sees him referencing his roots, “East of Finglas, North of Eden” in a confessional whisper, while the always-anthemic ‘Bad’ has new lines describing “this dope-sick nation.”
‘Walk On’ has been re-imagined as a love song for Ukraine, Bono capturing the concept of home: “You don’t know what it is till you’re forced to flee one.” Perhaps most powerfully, the aching singalong of ‘Pride’ has been amended to include Aylan Kurdi, the two-year old Kurdish boy who drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe in 2015, and whose image sparked international outrage: “One boy washed up on an empty beach/ One boy never will be kissed”.
‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ replaces the waves of guitars with cello, courtesy of Croatian bow-master Hauser, becoming a hymn that’s aeons away from The Joshua Tree. Hauser also drives the melody on ‘Vertigo’ and ‘Dirty Day’, the latter almost unrecognisable from the electro-clatter of Zooropa. ‘The Fly’ is a revelation; gone is the industrial fuzzbox guitar that heralded the advent of the Achtung Baby! era, replaced with a slow, slinky and even sleazy groove from Adam Clayton, while ’11 O’Clock Tick Tock’ is totally transformed into an eastern-tinged swayer.
Some highlights include songs pared back to bare essentials. Thus, ‘Stories For Boys’ is a wonderfully restrained, piano-led ballad; ‘Every Breaking Wave’ showcases Bono’s ability to not just hit but hold a high note; and ‘Stuck In A Moment You Can’t Get Out Of’ becomes a balm for the soul. A gorgeous, simple, acoustic guitar-led ‘Who’s Going To Ride Your Wild Horses’ allows the song’s heart to shine.
There are some creative mis-steps, like the calypso feel to ‘Get Out Of Your Own Way’, while the reggae take on ‘The Miracle Of Joey Ramone’ doesn’t work at all. ‘Desire’, the original three-chords-and-the-truth stomper that heralded Rattle & Hum, becomes a weird country-rawk wig-out with the highest falsetto you’ve ever heard Bono attempt. The radio-friendly swell of ‘Miracle Drug’, meanwhile, sounds a little too much like an out-take from a Disney soundtrack.
For the most part, however, these songs work beautifully and occasionally surprisingly. Some almost forgotten album tracks take on a new life. ‘The Little Things That Give You Away’ from Songs Of Experience proves itself as strong as some of the best moments from their vast canon, while ‘Red Hill Mining Town’ is rebuilt from the ground up on Larry Mullen’s military drum tattoo and undulating waves of New Orleans-style brass, courtesy of the Big Easy’s Trombone Shorty and Dan Oestreicher, Alabama jazz saxophonist Yirmayahu Yisrael and Ireland’s Rori Coleman.
Stripping these songs back to their core gives both band and listener a chance to re-connect with them, to hear them with fresh ears. For the most part, that also serves to remind us just how bloody magnificent they were in the first place.
Listen to Songs Of Surrender, out on March 17, here.