Reviews of Surrender

Original Story by Brad Hood (2023-03-23)

The U2Songs team has had nearly a week to digest Songs of Surrender (and it’s a lot to digest), so we thought we would post our initial impressions of the project. Everyone found something that they enjoyed, and we thought we would highlight some of those moments, as well as offering some perspective on where this reflective album fits into U2’s body of work. As with any new album, our feelings will likely change over time, but we already know these songs intimately enough to extend some opinions on the “re-imagined” versions.

Brad Hood

Songs of Surrender is a pretty controversial release, and I want to open by saying that U2 has been my favorite band for 35+ years, and that they have provided me with all of the musical joy that I would ever expect from a single group. I consider anything new from the band a bonus at this point, and if they never release a new song or take the stage again, I am satisfied with their body of work. It’s no secret that Bono and The Edge are guilty of some self-indulgence on Songs of Surrender, and in my opinion they have more than earned that right. All of that being said, there is not a single track on this album of re-imagined songs that I consider to be an improvement to the original. But these are still great songs, and sparse arrangements do not diminish their greatness; and I still find myself enjoying them when I listen to Songs of Surrender.

As with any band, people like U2 for different reasons, and I do think that Songs of Surrender has taught me something about why I connect with their music. I don’t intend for this to be a review of the whole album, but I do want to highlight the tracks that appealed to me the most, with a few details as to why. Since each band member selected 10 songs, I have challenged myself to also choose my 10 favorite tracks. In general, it turns out, I think I most enjoy the songs with the strongest sense of rhythm, even on an album where the rhythm section has been used pretty sparingly. There are some songs that intrigued me for other reasons, however, as I will detail further. I also think it’s worth pointing out one track that didn’t really work for me, which was “Desire.” I think that the falsetto is the wrong choice for this song, which is a bit ironic given that a common criticism of the album overall is that many of the songs are sung in a lower register, and it’s too bad because the performance has a really nice groove to it.

I also want to give a shout out to “In a Little While” from NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert and “S.O.S.” from BBC Radio 2’s Piano Room, both of which were performed in promotion of Songs of Surrender. I have to assume that “In a Little While” was considered for the album and wound up on the cutting room floor, which is a shame because it would have been nice to have a few more deep cuts, and this performance is better than several songs that did make the track list. I have heard many people complain that Bono’s sounds disinterested on several tracks, but this is a lively performance, probably owing to the fact that he is most at home performing to a live audience and interacting with a local choir. I’m sure it’s no accident that “S.O.S.” is also the initials of the album, and Bono and Edge do a nice job with this ABBA classic. It seems that we did get something new from the band on this project after all.

Also of note, I think that the Disney Plus documentary with David Letterman, A Sort of Homecoming, really gives some perspective as to why Bono and The Edge have chosen to go the route of reflection. I would consider it required viewing for anyone who is honestly interested in digesting and understanding Songs of Surrender. But without further ado, here are my top 10 moments from the album (in no particular order):

This is the one track whose importance in U2’s catalog has increased by virtue of appearing on Songs of Surrender. It has always been a bit of an orphan, released as a charity single and then tacked on to the next album as an afterthought bonus track. But this is a classic U2 song with a sing-along refrain, and that becomes more clear with the new arrangement. The performance(s) on A Sort of Homecoming make that point even more strongly.

Two Hearts Beat As One
I’m not saying I like this new version better than the original, but who would have thought that what “Two Hearts” really needed was a disco beat. This may be the most fun track on the album.

This version of “Bad” really captures what made the original a classic, and there are some new elements that work well. The cello really fleshes out the arrangement, and I’m pretty sure I can actually hear Larry in this one. Also another example of a track you will appreciate more after watching A Sort of Homecoming.

Where the Streets Have No Name
Far be it from me to tell anyone how to be a “true fan,” but if the intro to “Streets” doesn’t send tingles up your spine, why are you even bothering. On Songs of Surrender it sounds totally different, and yet when it starts to build, you know instinctively that it’s “Streets.”

Cedarwood Road
This is one of the more rock-and-roll songs from the last decade, and if you are going to record a stripped-down, guitar-and-vocals album, you had best have at least one song that lends itself to a campfire sing-along. “Cedarwood Road” fits the bill perfectly.

Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
For those of you for whom Edge going acoustic is as offensive as Dylan going electric, there are some interesting (if subtle) electric things going on here.

Dirty Day
I guess I’m a sucker for strings, because I really like the cello here as well. Normally, I don’t care for Bono speak-singing, but it works well in “Dirty Day.” Mostly I’m just pleased that they chose to re-imagine a somewhat deep cut.

The Fly
Definitely one of the sleazier, groovier moments on the album, and one of the richer arrangements. Slower than the original, but still captures “The Fly” persona.

11 O’Clock Tick Tock
If you think The Edge spends too much time strumming chords on Songs of Surrender, you should enjoy this song because there is a lot of detailed picking. One of Bono’s better vocal performances on the album as well.

Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses
With the exception of Bono’s flourishes in the final half minute, this is as close to a note-perfect acoustic take as you will find here. Probably the prime example that if you have the bones of a great song, you can strip it back and take it out of its era, and it’s still a great song.

One final footnote: For me, “Sunday Bloody Sunday” just isn’t “Sunday Bloody Sunday” without Larry’s military drum pattern. With that in mind, if you aren’t already familiar with U2’s 2013 acoustic performance for the ONE campaign, you should really check it out. It’s superior to this newest version, in my humble opinion.

Thoughts from the Team

Aaron Sams

I was hesitant about Songs of Surrender but tried to keep an open mind. The first couple of songs felt like they were all the same, a slow start, kicking in mid-way, and I was worried. Those worries quickly faded away with a first listen of the album. I thought it was gorgeous. It felt like Bono was sitting beside me, close enough to reach out and touch. The songs are rough, they feel like demos, but this is the closest many of us will ever get to hearing what they sound like sitting around a campfire.

I grew up in a musical family. A good Friday night involved guitars, mandolins, fiddles, the bodhran, tapping feet, clapping hands, and a laughter and singing voices raised up to the moon above. This collection of songs took me instantly back to those nights with family. This feels like the end of the week, cracking open a few beers, and listening to friends sing songs in the kitchen. The warts are there. Not everyone hits every note. But that’s part of the beauty for me.

A few of these may become favourites. “Two Hearts Beat As One” is already tugging at me, and I really enjoyed “If God Will Send His Angels”, but I do need a closer listen. The originals are so strong, there was little hope these would be better. But they are different. And there’s a time and a place, and a mood where these will be what I want to listen to. Really enjoying the album so far, and a few songs have been stuck in my head over the last few days. But ready for them to get back in and finish off something new…

Harry Kantas

I feel like it’s too early for me to comment on this new collection of songs. I don’t mean a few weeks early, but years most likely. Let me explain.

The Passengers OST1 was a project that made me feel the same way. I just couldn’t get into anything past “Miss Sarajevo” and “Your Blue Room” when it was first released. It took me nearly a decade until I finally felt the need to go back and listen to it again, and actually enjoy it. Side Bs of the POP and ATYCLB records were also hard to get into (apart from “Gone” and “New York” respectively).

U2 draws inspiration from a multitude of subjects and experiences, some of which I might not have crossed the foothold of at the time of release.

Songs Of Surrender feels exactly like that. Right now, I can see how some of the songs make sense, but some don’t. Not yet anyway. I have some current favourites (and least favourite), but let’s chat again sometime in the 2030s..!

Favourite Songs: “Stories For Boys”, “11 O’Clock Tick Tock”
Song that pleasantly surprised me the most: “The Miracle”
Songs currently on repeat: “Two Hearts”, “Dirty Day”, “If God Will Send His Angels”
Song that feels like a sin to strip down, but turned out amazing: “Bad”
Song that IS a sin to strip down: “I Will Follow”!

Don Morgan

None of these tracks will replace the originals for me, and I confess to being a bit tough on my favorite band in some music forums of late. Larry’s absence from Vegas doesn’t help! BUT, seeing some of these songs performed live on the Letterman documentary opened my eyes. Plus, I had a chance to listen to the full album alone on a late-night drive, on “a highway with no one on it,” so to speak, and the songs grew on me significantly in that setting. I get it now and I’m grateful to have these reinterpretations.

Rather than focusing on what could have been done differently, I’ll call out one favorite from each disc: “Bad” for letting the song unfold in interesting new ways and name-checking the album in a manner that actually works; “Dirty Day” for the cello although it must be said that using a cello on this song dates all the way back to Butch Vig’s remix in 1997; “Until the End of the World” because the first part sounds like Judas and Jesus might actually be having their conversation in an Old West saloon and somehow that works; and “40” for replacing the original’s ecstatic spirituality with a more meditative strain, it’s beautiful.

Carl Uebelhart

Multiple artists have had acoustic COVID albums over the past year or two, I wonder if it had been released earlier with a less protracted lead up, if it would have been viewed as a pleasant surprise as opposed to the disappointment “not a new U2 album”. Like Aaron I find the tracks that were released early aren’t among the more imaginative ones. Having 40 songs like “Pride”, “WOWY”, and “One” seemed like it could be a chore to get through!

I found the tracks that were re-imagined far more interesting than the ones that were just stripped down (I don’t think U2 needed to prove to anyone that they can write a good song) – “Two Hearts Beat As One”, “The Fly”, “If God Will Send His Angels”, “Stories for Boys”. The Zooropa tracks are great, Stay doesn’t benefit as much as some others from being stripped down but it is gorgeous. I found some tracks I don’t care for much, “Miracle Drug” and “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” more engaging on SOS. The key change in “Electrical Storm” was a pleasant surprise.

As someone who spent years focusing on the lyrics I was really excited about having them changed… but I feel like this is something that’ll need some time to really sink in. Some of the changes just don’t flow well, the replacement for “like a hunted child” in “Red Hill Mining Town” feels clunky, “WTSHNN” has some awkward meter. “Stories for Boys” and “Bad” are fascinating for being essentially rewrites, but a lot of the single line changes come off as either less lyrical or are delivered awkwardly, though that might just be my familiarity with the original versions. Having the big crescendo in “Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own” drop into something more intimate works to the strength of the narrative.

All in all, there’s probably a solid disc and change of songs that I find truly engaging, and many of the others have a different angle to appreciate. I fell to the temptation to judge these versions of the songs against the originals, but I think it’s more interesting to see have them co-exist next to them. I’m curious over time if they bring a deeper meaning to the originals… or even some disappointment that a more complex chord arrangement or changed lyric isn’t present.

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