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In unusual steps, U2 reinterprets 40 of his most famous songs


NEW YORK (AP) — In reimagining 40 of their best-known songs, U2 acknowledged that many fans would experience them through earphones plugged into a device in their pocket — rather than being worn on stage.

That was the thinking behind ‘Songs of Surrender’, which came out this week. The four men of U2, now aged 61 or 62, review material written in some cases when they were little more than Dublin children.

Especially at that time, U2 songs were mostly written with concerts in mind. The Edge told The Associated Press in an interview that U2 wanted to attract the attention of people seeing the band for the first time, perhaps at a festival or opening act.

“There’s a kind of gladiatorial aspect to live performance when you’re in that situation,” he said. “The material has to be quite daring and sometimes even stark. With this new performance, we thought it would be fun to see intimacy as a new approach, that intimacy would be the new punk rock, so to speak.”

The Edge was the driving force behind ‘Songs of Surrender’, using pandemic downtime to record much of the music at home.

Given that his electric guitar and Bono’s voice are U2’s musical signature, there’s a certain irony in the absence of that guitar being the most notable feature of the new versions. He mainly sticks to keyboards, acoustic guitar and dulcimer.

The process started without a roadmap or commitment to follow through if it didn’t work.

“Once we got into it and got into a groove, we really started to enjoy what was happening,” he said. “There was a lot of freedom in the process, it was joyful and fun to take these songs and reimagine them and I think that comes across. It doesn’t sound like a lot of hard work went into it because it wasn’t.”

Much of the intimacy comes from Bono’s voice. Shouting is not necessary, so he sometimes uses lower registers or goes into falsetto.

Lyrics are often rewritten, sometimes even expanded in a recent song like ‘The Miracle of Joey Ramone’. Some changes are more subtle but still noticeable: Replacing the line “betray one man with a kiss” with “one boy shall never be kissed” takes Jesus out of “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 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 was a high-octane rock dance number, now has a slinkier, sexy vibe, and is one of four tracks where The Edge takes lead vocals.

The band is fairly democratic in recording songs from all over the catalog, although the 1981 album “October” and the 2009 album “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 are one of the few acts with this body of work where a project like this would be possible, with the distance of time and experience where it would be interesting to revisit old songs,” said The Edge.

Throughout music history, bands have occasionally re-recorded material for contractual reasons. Taylor Swift is the most famous example, releasing new versions of her older songs to control their use. Squeeze’s “Spot the Difference” jokes about how they tried to make new recordings that were indistinguishable from the originals.

Live recordings and archive-cleaning projects, such as Bob Dylan’s “bootleg” series, give fans a chance to hear familiar songs in a different way.

Many older artists don’t see the point in making new music, since there’s little opportunity to be heard and fans tend to prefer the familiar stuff anyway, said Anthony DeCurtis, contributing editor of Rolling Stone.

“Creatively reviewing your body of work is one way to maintain interest in your career,” DeCurtis said. “Older fans may not be interested in another collection of your hits, but reworking them in a meaningful way can be tempting. Younger fans don’t have the same investment in your classics, so these new versions provide a route into your catalog.”

The Edge encourages fans to give the new versions a try, suggesting they may even prefer them.

“I don’t think there’s any competition between this and the original versions,” he said. “It’s more of an addition than a replacement. If you like the new arrangements, great. If you prefer the originals, keep listening.

“It’s no problem anyway,” he said. “They’re both valid.”

The Edge said he is working on new music for U2, “and we have great things in the pipeline.”

The quartet that met in drummer Larry Mullen Jr.’s kitchen when they responded to an ad on a high school bulletin board is a remarkable story of longevity. A passage towards the end of Bono’s book ‘Surrender’, where he talked about looking around the stage at the end of their most recent tour in 2019 and wondering if this was the end, naturally raised questions about how long U2 would go on .

“There are many reasons why 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 brightest as part of this collective. I certainly wouldn’t want to hang up the guitar.”

This year will be a test for a band that can count on one hand how many times they’ve performed without all four members. U2 have committed to a series of shows in Las Vegas without Mullen, who is recovering from surgery.

Would U2 continue if one of the original quartet decides it’s time to hang up?

“I’m not ruling out the possibility that we could move forward with different members,” The Edge said. “But I can also imagine that we decide not to do that. It would be a big challenge. But I think at that point we would know what felt right.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.