The album sets out to recast U2’s arena anthems as private conversations. Bono croons as if he’s singing quietly into your ear, and most of the arrangements rely on acoustic guitar or piano — like MTV’s old “Unplugged” shows, but by no means devoid of studio enhancements.
“Unplugged” was MTV’s tribute to the recording-business cliché that a great song only needs chords and a voice to reveal its quality, as if everything else is embellishment. Yes and no. Melody, harmony and lyrics say a lot, but production can be transformative. Songs engrave themselves in fans’ memories — and lives — not just for their words and music, but for their sheer sound. We can recognize a favorite oldie from an opening guitar tone or a drumbeat. And the more we’ve taken a song to heart, the more its sonic details resonate.
U2 got together in the era when punk insisted that anyone, trained or not, could make vital music. But even during that movement, musicians and producers understood how much texture matters. Recording in the analog era was a costly, intentional effort, and low-budget, lo-fi recordings could still create high intensity.
One of U2’s enduring strengths has been the way its songs ennoble yearning and turbulence. Bono sings about self-questioning and contradictions with a voice that might scratch or falter but pushes ahead, unabashedly working itself up to shouts and howls. And the band’s martial drums, chiming guitars and inexorable crescendos create arena-size superstructures filled with rhythmic — and emotional — crosscurrents.
The remakes on “Songs of Surrender” often strip away too much. In the original 1983 “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” a song about a terrorist bombing during Ireland’s “troubles,” the track evokes sirens and gunshots while Bono sounds both desperate and furious, right in the middle of the strife. The remake, with a lone acoustic guitar, recasts the song as something between a lullaby and lament, crooned as if it’s a learned memory.
“Out of Control,” which in 1979 had jabbing, buttonholing electric guitar and bass lines, has become a cozy, cheerfully strummed self-affirmation, very much in control. And the surging, cathartic peaks of songs like “With or Without You,” “Vertigo,” and “Pride (in the Name of Love)” are far too muted in the remakes.