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Review: U2 reworks past in thrilling ‘Songs of Surrender’

Iconic rock act reworks a big chunk of its iconic catalog with mixed but worthwhile results
This image released by Universal shows “Songs of Surrender” by U2. (Universal via AP)

Imagine walking into your living room and all your stuff is there, but it’s different. The sofa has moved, the bookcase is leaning on a different wall and the framed photos have swapped locations. That’s the feeling you get listening to U2’s new album.

“Songs of Surrender” is a “reimagining” of 40 songs from the Irish quartet’s deep catalogue, cleverly presented from “One” to “40.” Think of it as a thrilling home makeover.

“I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside,” Bono sings in the new “Where the Streets Have No Name” — lyrics that perfectly fit this sonic experiment. This version of the song is virtually unrecognizable from the one the band made famous in 1987.

That’s the point of this exercise led by Bono and The Edge. “Once we surrendered our reverence for the original version, each song started to open up to a new authentic voice of this time,” The Edge writes in the liner notes.

There are triumphs and a few fumbles, but there’s a growing realization that the architecture of these songs is strong indeed, even with some new lyrics. The new “Vertigo” has Middle Eastern instrumentations, while an acoustic guitar-driven “Sunday Bloody Sunday” sounds more like something from a coffeehouse open-mic night than a strident arena-ready demand. But they’re both still gorgeous.

Some might even be improvements. One of the band’s earliest hits — “11 O’Clock Tick Tock” — is smoother, slower and cleaner than the original. And would you believe the new “The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)” might be better than the one on “Songs of Innocence”?

Many reworkings are relatively straight-forward, like “Cedarwood Road,” “Peace on Earth,” “Bad” and “I Will Follow.” Most have a stripped-down feel, which gives Bono’s voice little shelter amid moody keyboards or choppy acoustic guitar. “Every Breaking Wave” is cinematic, like something that should run over the end credits when an anguished drama has faded to black.

“I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” gets a cowboy vibe and unexpected honky-tonky electricity. “Desire” has Bono high in his falsetto against a strummy dulcimer and the effect is hypnotic.

“Get Out of Your Own Way” is remade as a Mumford & Sons tune, in a good way, and the new “Stuck in a Moment” is a folkish prayer, the structure holding. The new “One” is a little marred by a choir effect, but it is such a beautiful song that it could be remade as a punk tune and it would still sparkle.

Listening to the new “Sometime You Can’t Make It On Your Own” is like running into an ex who is barely recognizable. The reworked “With or Without You” has an air of antiseptic menace.

One effect of the album is to put Bono’s lyrics under a spotlight, making his words and imagery more pronounced. The new “Ordinary Love” emerges like a tone poem, the new “Invisible” reveals deeper pain than originally sang.

Some don’t work, as when the grimness of “Red Hill Mining Town” is undercut by horns, effectively remaking it into a defanged children’s song. The new “Beautiful Day” is not an improvement over the original; it has been made lounge-y and meandering, despite some nifty new lyrics.

In a new “Pride (In the Name of Love),” Bono’s voice has been harnessed and tamed, losing the original’s stridency and anger. And the new “40” — with Bono appropriately arguing “I will sing a new song” — has been made limp and passive.

If you’re not a U2 fan, this collection will not convince you to embrace them. If you are a mega-fan, you will marvel at their mutability. And if you are a casual fan, you must admire a band willing to get in its own way.

—Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press

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