U2 "Songs of Surrender" notebook dump

this is not a rebel song

U2 "Songs of Surrender" notebook dump

I spent last week doing speed immersion on the “new” U2 album, Songs of Surrender, which I wrote about for Pitchfork. It’s 40 U2 songs re-recorded by Edge and Bono, but in addition to analysis of the actual music there was also considering what this record actually means to their legacy. I thought I’d do a short notebook dump that illustrates my thought process.

As we have already covered here, Bono published his biography earlier this year, and as I mention in my review, every chapter is the title of a U2 song, even if the connection between chapter and song doesn’t necessarily wrap up neatly. This was apparently the inspiration for the Edge to decide during lockdown that he was going to work his way through U2’s catalog and try to re-record some of them, with an idea that it was going to be something to accompany the book release. If you have the audiobook of Surrender, there are little snippets of music that introduce each chapter and many of those snippets are in fact the tracks from the Songs of Surrender album. When I heard about that, I promptly bought the audiobook so I could go through them to see what was up. At the time, I had no idea if any of this was going to mean revisiting the Vulture U2 list, and I was trying to do recon to get ahead of that. (Not all of the song titles in Surrender are on the record and vice versa, in case you were wondering.) I was also doing some advance work (read: I made a spreadsheet) to try to figure out what the themes were for each band member’s “side,” and I abandoned the whole thing when I read Adam Clayton last week telling interviewers that he’d had nothing to do with it. Thanks, Adam!

from the aforementioned spreadsheet

Part of my original pitch for the review read: “There are some interesting takes, but it's not any kind of large-scale meaningful reinterpretation of their catalog and it doesn't notch, for me, beyond a bunch of bored musicians with home studios trying to be productive during lockdown -- which, to be fair, is notable in and of itself because it couldn't have happened like this 20 years ago, and creative atrophy is real. I am That Person who has alternate versions of U2 songs on my phone. Maybe one or two of these alts might make the cut once I hear them in their entirety, but otherwise I'm still trying to figure out what they are trying to accomplish with this grand release, and how they want these versions of their work evaluated and interpreted.”

Bono and Edge are smart cookies and they too thought about those things, and they decided to address them by sending letters to select fans (which then ended up being used as the liner notes for the record) and by producing their own tv special about the album, bringing in David Letterman to host or organize or somehow guide the story1. The Disney+ special is worth watching, Letterman keeps it both genuine and wacky, and Adam and Larry are nowhere to be found2, but are thanked in the credits for “letting us go rogue.”


It’s their songs. but once you release it to the world, all bets are off.

go back to your original intent

chop it to bits but don’t NEUTER it

his voice is a treasure

This is the truth and the only redeeming thing is getting to hear Bono soar in a way he isn’t always able to do live because performing live is not a controlled environment.

11 o’clock - it’s what I would have expected to hear on unplugged back in the, y’known, NINETIES

if you redo Beautiful Day you better call Trent Reznor or Einstürzende Neubauten

they *have* people around them to call bullshit

When you are an improvisational lyricist you are trusting your instincts but the 30-year rewrite cannot be as good. it also takes the listener out of the experience

as a fan it is confusing and feels like a betrayal: what was real? did you not mean/believe what you sang? why are you altering the story instead of just writing a new one?

Every Breaking Wave - you literally just did this record. you haven’t changed it demonstrably

these are texts. walk on was/is about so many other things. I have never listened to it and thought about Suu Kyi except at a U2 shows

yes, you were young people when you wrote these songs. picasso didn’t keep trying to re-paint Guernica

GOOYOW. It’s so fun and playful! it’s just still not a good song.

The Fliy is kinda trip-hoppy but it’s also from the most malleable record. I’m not shocked that it’s basically play-doh

The “Desire” falsetto is insane and brave. You don’t HAVE to be brave but when you’re one of the biggest bands in the world why wouldn’t you jump off the cliff

the songs you love, you just love more. the songs you don’t love don’t change. there’s nothing in here that makes me rethink a song I previously disregarded. invisible still sounds like a fucking advert

WOWY is their most overrated song and the young Bono who sang it in 1987 wasn’t as interesting. He was just horny
Bono Is Sorry--or Is He?--for U2's Grandiosity in New Video 'Apology' -  Variety

The other video product worth watching is their interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, which you can actually watch on YouTube and don’t require Apple Music or Apple+. The conversation is great, because Lowe is a fan and he’s also a great interviewer who isn’t afraid to actually engage and/or push them in conversation. But it’s also kind of a ridiculous thing because apparently U2 wanted to do this in the desert, so they’re out in Death Valley somewhere sitting outside next to an Airstream, and everybody looks cold (probably because it gets cold in the desert in the winter!). Lowe mentions a ghost town nearby and we never go there, except driving past it. I wonder if they’re going to go to the actual Joshua Tree, which could have thematically made sense but they… do not.

At some point they get into the trailer and I think we’re going to go somewhere, but it seems like they are only in the trailer because sitting outside was no longer comfortable (if it ever was). And then once the trailer starts driving, it’s only to bring them back to Las Vegas, and the special continues despite it being recorded in an aging restored trailer from the 60s being driven on roads of questionable quality in the middle of the desert. The conversations are great, don’t get me wrong, and the weirdness of this business doesn’t get in the way, but man I would have liked some more footage of Bono lounging on the bed in the rear of the trailer or Edge on acoustic guitar singing something. It would have made more sense than what was presented in the final direction.

I believe them with all my heart when they describe the spiritual quest they went on tinkering with these songs. I originally thought that it was some kind of way of not dealing with Larry Mullen nope-ing out of U2SPHERE (and I’m still not entirely sure that the Bono book events aren’t a way of figuring that out). I do genuinely think that they don’t know what to do, that they don’t want to have U2 without Larry, that they don’t want to do solo records, and there’s no real guidebook out there for them to look at to try to figure out what makes sense for the four of them. I do feel differently about the Sphere-less LMJ, because it feels less calculated and calculating, and more genuine.3

But I swear to god that most of the Zane Lowe interview I was yelling, GO TO GROUP THERAPY, DO NOT DO THIS IN PUBLIC. I have to wonder if Paul McGuinness was still their manager if they would be in this mess. I have to wonder if they had better management if this would all be happening. I have to wonder why none of their inner circle, who normally do not have a problem telling them that they’re full of it, are not doing so or not being heard when they do. Or maybe they have done all of the things and don’t know what else to do, because being a human being is hard and they are still humans getting old and trying to figure out what to do with this life they have built. I wish them well.

  1. I have not done any digging to figure out how much was them and how much was him because I need a break from all of this for a bit. (she says, writing a newsletter about writing all of the stuff)

  2. I have already addressed some of this in a previous newsletter

  3. Although given how there are no dates for these shows yet/still, and the place isn’t finished yet, one has to wonder why this all had to happen the way it did. The Machine wasn’t built to handle actual humans with human bodies and emotions.