Songs of Surrender
What happens when you’re the face of a band that has become too big to break up?
If you’re Mick Jagger, you make a couple of solo albums that are poorly received, and in a moment of clarity you apologize to your partner for stepping out. Lucky for you, you’re from a generation which believes that divorce is not an option, so Keith generously forgives you and you stay together for the kids. As a bonus for sticking it out, your band transitions into an active legacy band and you can pad your retirement fund by charging fans small fortunes for concert tickets.
If you're Paul Hewson, you scramble. Each album your band has released for the last 31 years has produced diminishing returns, music critics have grown exhausted, and you’re concerned about how the fans will react when they find out your drummer called you a dictator and all but said he quit the band. You remain in denial and reassure everyone that the relationship is intact and everything’s fine, but the writing is on the wall. Instead of a dignified and earned hiatus, you force the relationship, keep up appearances, and release Songs of Surrender because to you, a world without U2 could mean the end of Bono.
But Songs of Surrender isn’t the first time you realize how fragile your band is. The stress fractures start showing in the late ‘80s, but divorce really only seems like a realistic option after No Line on the Horizon (2011), which a fraction of your fans buy out of routine, but fails to impress critics. The album debuts at number one, sliding down the charts soon after, only to sell five million units worldwide. Sure, shifting five million units is an impressive number, but dismal for a once platinum-selling act that hasn't been able to shake out of its declining trajectory for decades.
Unlike most lead singers of huge pop groups, you had enough self-awareness to realize that No Line on the Horizon was a sign that U2’s best years were behind them, and said so when you told the NME that “We have to make hits if we are to survive.” But survive what? Certainly not starvation or cancer or some other tragedy which would be cause for such a dramatic statement.
By 2011, you were wealthier than most small countries. By 2011, your band was in a position where they could record an album – with or without “hits,” distribute it INDEPENDENTLY online, and do what Radiohead did several years earlier by allowing fans to pay whatever they felt it was worth.
By 2011, surely it couldn’t be money that was your motivation – according to a recent Pollstar article, the Rolling Stones and U2 are the only two music acts to surpass the $2 billion threshold. But it wasn’t about the money, it’s about feeding the ego.
And in order to feed the ego, you do whatever you have to do to stay in the media cycle. You agree to re-record an album of your old songs, frame it as part of your “Songs of” concept, and release it on St. Patrick’s Day with at least half a dozen vinyl variants (for the completists). It’s gimmicky, but right now, gimmicks are all your songwriting partner’s got.
So what’s the point of Songs of Surrender? Is it proof of life? A reheated stop-gap until your drummer is able to bend his elbows again while the band accumulates enough new “hits” to prop up a full album? Or, is this new record all just part of a digestible, synergetic media package that works in conjunction with the upcoming speaking tour for your new memoir? Is it chum for the new David Letterman-produced Disney+ band documentary?
Maybe it’s the transitional album where U2 becomes a mostly-drumless act, sort of the way Bob Dylan walked away from the acoustic guitar in ‘65? This theory would make sense considering you have a lot riding on that big Vegas residency rapidly approaching and you probably want to downplay the fact that the founder of your band isn’t happy with you and won’t be behind the drum kit anymore.
Songs of Surrender could exist because of all of those theories, or none of those theories, but none of it matters if the album is great, right? So the question must be asked: Is Songs of Surrender great? Do these songs benefit from their “re-recording and re-imagining?”
Edge thinks so. He stresses that the songs were written by undisciplined, young boys, but they’re men now – men with the weight of experience and refined chops. And he lets us know it – repeatedly in the album’s liner notes and in press junkets for the release, as if he’s trying to convince us.
But what he forgets is that’s why anyone cared about them in the first place. Those first three albums were scrappy and frayed around the edges, and that’s why they were so wonderful, they felt fresh and immediate, as if a lazy Island Records exec decided that the demo was good enough for general release.
Ultimately, you allowed all of the spirit and spontaneity to be stripped away from the original songs that make up Songs of Surrender. In one case, you even changed its meaning completely. “Walk On” (All That You Can’t Leave Behind, 2000) was originally dedicated to a political prisoner (Aung San Suu Kyi), but in its new form here, you took away the dedication, rewrote a few of its lyrics, and gave it to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy, because, well, Zelenskyy is currently a sexy cause.
Hopefully, Songs of Surrender keeps you in the media cycle long to help sell all those Vegas tickets when they go on sale. Hopefully, for the sake of your fans, you’ve been taking notes on how Robert Smith handled Ticketmaster’s price gouging. Hopefully Songs of Surrender will satiate the ego long enough for Edge to come up with his next gimmick.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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