NEW YORK — Reinterpreting 40 of their most iconic songs, U2 realized many fans would experience them through headphones connected to a device in their pocket – rather than strapped in on stage.
That was a thought behind Songs of Surrender, out this week. The four men of U2, now aged either 61 or 62, revisit material written in some cases when they were little more than children outside of Dublin.
Back then, U2 songs were mainly written for concerts. The Edge told The Associated Press in an interview that U2 wanted to attract the attention of people who are seeing the band for the first time, perhaps at a festival or as an opening act.
“There’s a kind of gladiator aspect to live performances in this situation,” he said. “The material has to be quite striking and sometimes even flashy. With this reinterpretation, we thought it would be fun to see intimacy as a new approach, that intimacy was like the new punk rock.”
The Edge was the driving force behind “Songs of Surrender,” using the downtime of the pandemic to record much of the music at home.
Given that his electric guitar and Bono’s voice are U2’s musical signature, it’s ironic that that guitar isn’t the most immediate feature of the new versions. He primarily sticks to keyboards, acoustic guitar and dulcimer.
The process began with no roadmap or commitment to follow through if it didn’t work.
“Once we got into that and got into a groove, we really started to enjoy what was happening,” he said. “There was a lot of freedom in that process, it was upbeat and fun to take these songs and reinvent them in a way, and I think that comes across. It doesn’t sound like there was a lot of hard work involved, because it wasn’t.”
Much of the intimacy comes through Bono’s voice. There’s no need to shout, so sometimes he uses lower registers or slips into falsetto.
The lyrics are often rewritten, sometimes even in a newer song like “The Miracle of Joey Ramone”. Some changes are more subtle, but still noticeable: Replacing the line “a man is betrayed with a kiss” with “a boy is never kissed” takes Jesus from “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 has won?”
Cellos replace the driving guitar of “Vertigo”. Keyboards give “Where the Streets Have No Name” an ambient sound. “Two Hearts Beat as One,” the original high-octane rock dance song, now has a smoother, sexier vibe and is one of four songs to feature The Edge on lead vocals.
The band is fairly democratic in taking songs from their entire catalogue, although 1981’s “October” album 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 few acts that have this body of work where a project like this would be possible, with the time and experience gap where it would be interesting to revive early songs,” said The Edge.
Throughout music history, bands have occasionally re-recorded material for contractual reasons. Taylor Swift is the most famous example of releasing new versions of her older songs to control their usage. Squeeze’s “Spot the Difference” pokes fun at how they tried to make new recordings indistinguishable from the originals.
Live recordings and archive cleanup projects like Bob Dylan’s “Bootleg” series give fans a chance to hear familiar songs differently.
Many older artists see no point in making new music because there are few opportunities to be heard and fans tend to prefer the familiar anyway, said Anthony DeCurtis, editor of Rolling Stone.
“Creatively revamping your work is a means of maintaining interest in your career,” DeCurtis said. “Older fans may not be interested in another collection of your hits, but a meaningful makeover might prove enticing. Younger fans don’t have the same investment in your classics, so these new releases offer a route into your catalogue.”
The Edge encourages fans to try the new versions and suggests they may even prefer some of them.
“I don’t think there’s any competition between these and the original versions,” he said. “It’s more of an additive thing than a replacement. If you like the new arrangements, great. If you prefer the originals, keep listening.
“It’s not a problem either way,” he said. “They are both valid.”
The Edge said he’s working on new music for U2, “and we’ve got some great stuff in the pipeline.”
The quartet, who met in drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s kitchen while responding to 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, in which he talked about looking around the stage at the end of their final tour in 2019 and wondering if this was the end, raised natural questions about how long U2 would continue.
“There are many reasons U2 have stayed together for so long, but one of the main reasons is that it works so well for us as individuals,” said The Edge. “I think we all shine the brightest as part of this collective. I certainly don’t want to hang up the guitar.”
This year will test a band who can count on one hand the number of times they’ve performed without all four members. U2 has committed to a string of shows in Las Vegas without Mullen, who is recovering from surgery.
Would U2 move on if one of the original quartet decided it was time to hang up?
“I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that we could continue with other members,” The Edge said. “But I could also imagine that we decide against it. It would be a big challenge. But I think back then we knew what felt right.”