On March 17, U2 released Songs of Surrender—40 songs from their catalog that were stripped down and delivered largely through vocals, acoustic guitar, and some piano. A product of U2’s democracy, each band member chose 10 songs to go on the album. While most of the selections were classic U2 songs, nearly one-fourth of the songs came from their most recent albums and single releases.
Though one reviewer described the album as U2 covering themselves, Songs of Surrender is more of a reimagination of past songs. In some cases (Beautiful Day and Walk On), they’ve rewritten lyrics to reflect convictions for a new day. In some songs, such as Pride in the Name of Love, we distinctly hear a 60-something Bono singing with his 20-something self. In this sense, Songs of Surrender reminds me of St. Augustine’s work (along with his disciple Possidius) to create an index (indiculus) of his works toward the end of his life. While preparing the index, Augustine also wrote a new work called Reconsiderations (Retractationes), where he communicated how his thoughts had developed and how he had even changed his mind on some theological matters. It is a rare and wise feat to reflect on one’s life work. St. Augustine did it, and I think U2 is also doing it through Songs of Surrender.
By stripping the songs down to vocals and an acoustic guitar, we hear more clearly the genius and beauty of the lyrics. And surprisingly, in many cases, the Edge captures the fullness of the songs with just an acoustic guitar. I found this to be particularly true in their interpretation of Bad, Out of Control, and Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses. The band has actually been playing acoustic versions of their songs in concerts for years. Over time, the acoustic form became the only way that songs like Stay (Far Away, So Close), Stuck in a Moment, Staring at the Sun, and Every Breaking Wave were performed live.
The Songs of Surrender compilation is a busk of sorts. Within the past several years, U2 busked in the New York City and Berlin subway stations. In May 2022, just months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Bono and Edge played an acoustic concert before a small crowd in the Kyiv metro station. And recently, they played some of Songs of Surrender live on NPR’s Tiny Desk. Through these outings, U2 has shown they can play to an intimate audience of 60-80 just as well as a sold-out stadium of 60,000 to 80,000.
While I’ve generally enjoyed listening to U2 dialogue with its past through this project, some of the songs were quite a bust for me. Where the Streets Have No Name (performed completely acapella!) and I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For were just not big enough. For both songs, I needed the full band, a sound system, and a stadium of at least 50,000 people to make it work. It looks like they tried to play With or Without You without a bass guitar, which for me, is the instrument that supports and forms the whole song. Stay (Far Away, So Close) was also a disappointment. I wish they had gone with the already refined live acoustic version they’ve been playing for years. But U2 are always risk-takers.
For me, the best song on Songs of Surrender (and my favorite all-time U2 song) was Walk On. It was originally written as a tribute to Aung San Suu Kyi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize from prison in 1991 for her efforts to advance democracy and freedom in her native Myanmar. Later, the band sang Walk On to memorialize the victims of September 11, 2001. In the Songs of Surrender version of Walk On, which included some new lyrics, they celebrate the courageous leadership of comedian turned-president Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the people of Ukraine in their struggle for freedom against the Russian invasion that began in March 2022.
Songs of Surrender is a reimagination of 40 U2 songs. The record begins with One, their greatest hit from the 1990s and a testimony to their unity as a band all these years. It ends with 40, their version of Psalm 40, and a prayer that they closed many concerts with during the 1980s and again in parts of the 2000s. I like much of this album. And it makes me want to buy a ticket and get to the next available live U2 show.