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Forty, but unlike before

MUSIC | U2 tries to make its grandiose songs intimate


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Forty, but unlike before
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Perhaps hoping to capitalize on the luck of the Irish, Bono, the Edge, Adam Clayton, and Larry Mullen Jr.—U2—released their latest album, Songs of Surrender, on St. Patrick’s Day. They even configured it like a four-leaf ­clover: four 10-song discs averaging 40 minutes apiece, concluding, appropriately enough, with a song called “40.”

They’ve recorded “40” (a setting of Psalm 40:1-3) before. Forty years ago, in fact. They’ve previously recorded the other 39, too. Having another go at them, it turns out, is the whole point.

The main difference between the new versions and the old is that whereas many of the latter were full-bodied arena-rock anthems, the former are, deliberately, shadows of their former selves, their once-high ­volumes and pounding beats stripped away to reveal—what exactly?

Aye, there’s the rub. The Edge, in whose brain Songs of Surrender first took root, has said that he wanted to make intimate what had once been grandiose. But grandiosity is what U2 does best. Furthermore, the occasional lyrics that Bono has rewritten do not improve on the originals.

“I was lost, I am found,” for example, in “I Will Follow” has become “To be lost is to be found.” “One man betrayed with a kiss” in “Pride (In the Name of Love)” has become “One boy will never be kissed” (presumably because the boy is an asylum-seeking migrant who has washed up dead on a shore). And the line in “One” about “play[ing] Jesus to the lepers in your head” (quite suggestive, that) now places the lepers “in your bed.” (Why?)

For what it’s worth, Jesus gets ­mentioned in five other songs too—sometimes reverently, sometimes in passing. Not for nothing has Bono referred to Surrender, his 2022 memoir to which these discs serve as an unofficial soundtrack, in spiritual terms.

That U2’s music embodies a yin-yang dance between the sublime and the ridiculous has long been a matter of record. But if mocking the group for its excesses is hard to resist (“sham rock,” anyone?), so, at the end of the day, is its music. Like all maelstrom-­force phenomena, it eventually sucks you in.

Even semi-unplugged, “Beautiful Day,” “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of,” and “Vertigo” refuse to let go. And “Out of Control,” “11 O’Clock Tick Tock,” and “Stories for Boys” ­possess a reflectiveness and a maturity that they lacked when they first appeared 43 years ago, on or just before the band’s debut, Boy.

“In the shadow,” goes one song from that album, “boy meets man.” At its best, Songs of Surrender turns that line into prophecy.


Arsenio Orteza

Arsenio is a music reviewer for WORLD Magazine and one of its original contributors from 1986. Arsenio resides in China.

@ArsenioOrteza

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