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Every veteran music artist invariably faces a career-defining moment. Do they forge ahead in an effort to remain artistically fresh, or do they settle into a bank account-friendly path of occasionally hopping aboard a tour bus to trot out the oldies for the faithful?
Suppose an artist has long since lost pop culture relevancy. In that case, the latter path is mandatory, maybe on occasion making a new album for the 30,000 or so diehard followers still interested in something new. But when you’re U2, otherwise known as the biggest band in the world, the choice becomes far less clear. In its own “yeah, we’ll do what we want” way, the band has chosen to walk both paths simultaneously with “Songs of Surrender,” a new album filled with ofttimes radical reworkings of songs known to all and barely familiar to even the most devoted fan.
The Edge concisely describes the album:
“When a song becomes well known it’s always associated with a particular voice. I can’t imagine Tangled Up in Blue without Bob Dylan’s reedy timbre or All The Time in the World without the unique voice of Louis Armstrong. So what happens when a voice develops new tonalities as experience and maturity give it additional resonance?
“U2 have been around long enough to know what that feels like and sounds like. It’s true for Adam, Larry and me, but it’s particularly true for Bono. The fact is that much of our work was written and recorded when U2 was a bunch of very young men. Those songs mean something quite different to us now. Some have grown with us, some we have outgrown, but we have not lost sight of what it was that propelled us to write those songs in the first place. The essence of those songs still lives in us. But how to reconnect with that essence when the band has changed and grown so much?
“Music allows you to time travel, and so we started to imagine what it would be like to bring those songs back with us to the present day and give them the benefit, or otherwise, of a 21st century reimagining. What started out as an experiment quickly developed into a personal obsession as so many early U2 songs yielded to a new interpretation. Intimacy replaced post-punk urgency. New keys, new chords, new tempos, new lyrics arrived. A great song, it turns out, is kind of indestructible. Once we surrendered our reverence for the original version each song started to open up to a new authentic voice of this time, of the people we now are, and particularly the singer that Bono has become.
“I hope you like our new direction.”
“Songs of Surrender” is unquestionably the quietest album U2 has ever made. Piano and acoustic guitar dominate the landscape, with bass and drums kept to a minimum and very few appearances of The Edge’s effects-laden electric guitar work. Instead, the focus is almost exclusively on Bono’s singing, which despite his age (he turns 63 this year) and the mileage of decades spent on the road, has lost none of its range and color. There are some lyrical modifications, but nothing overly jarring.
The new arrangements take a few listens to gain sufficient familiarity for full acceptance, but once you’re there, you discover multiple moments of pure magic. As The Edge notes, it is the songs that matter, and U2 has created a massive part of the rock canon from 1980 going forward. The rerecorded songs won’t replace the originals. That is not their purpose. Instead, they bring moments of reflective calm and clarity sorely needed in this increasingly troubled world.
“Songs of Surrender” will most likely change no one’s mind, pro or con, about U2. Bono remains a polarizing figure, and regardless of which side one takes, this strongly colors opinions of the band’s music. But for those with ears to hear, “Songs of Surrender” is a terrific, warm gift; a reminder that while neither we nor U2 are still the young lions, a late-night purr still brings the power.
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