In 2002, Island and Interscope Records released a U2 compilation for the 1990s, plainly named The Best of 1990-2000. Its companion release, The Best of 1980-1990, released in 1998, was a fairly straightforward collection in that the first CD had all of U2’s noteworthy hits, and the limited edition disc was full of B-sides. But when it came time to assemble the tracks for The Best of 1990-2000, things got a little weird. The limited edition CD, which billed itself as a B-side compilation, was crammed full of confusing remixes, including remixes of B-sides, remixes of covers, an “original” version of a new song (a remix of “Electrical Storm” was on the first disc), and a regular album track (“Your Blue Room”).
The first CD, the actual product meant to document U2’s output in the 1990s, was even more confusing. When it came to representing the band’s glittery 1997 album Pop and thrillingly experimental Zooropa from 1993, the powers-that-be decided to give four of these songs a “new mix”. Not a remix but a “new mix”. If you haven’t heard The Best of 1990-2000, you probably wonder what the difference is. The best way I can describe it is this: someone at Island or Interscope leaned over and whispered into U2’s collective ears, “hey, people weren’t really digging those weird sounds you guys were chasing on Zooropa and Pop. We better make them more palatable.”
So, everything that made songs like “Gone”, “Numb”, and “Discothèque” interesting was siphoned away only to be replaced with nothing. U2 revisionism had begun. Jabba the Hut had broken out of his palace and was slithering all over downtown Dublin. Years later, lead singer Bono would give an interview in which he expressed a desire to go back and re-record Pop from top-to-bottom, which should be enough to ponder whether or not we took all of Pop’s color and character for granted.
Fast forward to 2023, and prompted by Bono’s memoir Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, U2 have cast their revisionist net far and wide. Depending on which edition you buy, Songs of Surrender features 16, 20, or 40 songs from U2’s past, all performed on acoustic guitars and piano. With the exception of October, No Line on the Horizon, and Original Soundtracks Vol. 1 (credited to Passengers), U2 drew from every one of their records for the material, in addition to a few non-album singles. Many of them are slower and quieter than their original counterparts.
Some find Bono singing in a lower octave or a different key altogether, depending on the current shape of his voice. Bits of lyrics are altered here and there, and some stanzas double their length by stretching out the words being sung. One thing they all have in common is that they repeat the same mistake made 21 years prior when The Best of 1990-2000 was regrettably peppered with “new” mixes – they just aren’t that interesting.
To their credit, U2’s selection process for Songs of Surrender isn’t limited to only their biggest hits. In addition to three songs from their spunky debut, Boy, they also include the old buried nugget “11 O’clock Tick Tock”, which doesn’t sound too bad with its 12-string chime set against a piano. They tackle a few standalone singles that casual fans may have missed, like “Ordinary Love” and “Invisible”. Even their much-maligned Songs of Innocence and its companion release, Songs of Experience, are well-represented here, with four from the former and three from the latter. Of course, the newer a song is, the less it has been “lived-in”, giving the listener suspicion to believe it may not yet be ripe for reinterpretation. But there is humor in placing the song “One” first and the 40th one being “40”.
When it comes to songs like “Bad”, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”, and “With or Without You”, I’m sure U2 can’t help but feel the need to change things up after having played them for decades in stadiums across the world. Yet when they get their chance to reinvent them, they apply only the most trivial of changes. What alterations exist hardly justify the existence of the boxset, let alone all the studio time required to make it all happen.
There are bits of window dressing dragged out from time to time, like the horn section on “Red Hill Mining Town”, the added strings on “Vertigo” and “Dirty Day”, the vocal echo applied to “City of Blinding Lights”, and Bono’s wince-inducing vocal cracks in “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses”. His decision to sing all of “Desire” in falsetto was likely an attempt for some soul, but unfortunately, he comes off sounding like the devil (Him!) in Powerpuff Girls.
“Two Hearts Beat As One” finds the Edge achieving a funky groove in this setting, which is admirable considering how dead the rest of the material sounds. But how did he make “The Fly” sound so dull? Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr., one of post-punk’s most enduring rhythm sections, seem only to be involved on a peripheral level. Sometimes they’re there; sometimes, they’re not. For his part, Bono never goes by half-measures. Whether he’s singing a song memorized by almost every living adult the world over or a song he wrote when he was 18, the earnestness in his delivery is the same, and over two hours and 45 minutes, the ear begs for a changeup.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Just because a band decide to go “unplugged” temporarily doesn’t mean that the music has to wind up sounding like open mic night at your local pub. There are pockets in the rock ‘n’ roll landscape filled with artists who could think outside the usual wooden box of “hey, let’s just replace the electric guitar with an acoustic and make the tempo a little slower”.
For some sad reason, U2 feel like they can’t embrace this freedom. They started as punks, a genre that prided itself on ignoring rules and criticism. In the 1990s, they morphed into a futuristic juggernaut that could peek around musical corners before their protégés even had a chance. But somewhere along the way, that all changed. Their sense of surprise was exchanged for maddeningly consistent predictability. We are left with Songs of Surrender, a quadruple album that sounds exactly how you think it would.