U2 was on the verge of greatness when they released The Unforgettable Fire in 1984. After the success of the War album and subsequent concert video (Under a Blood Red Sky, which was an MTV favorite), U2 was just shy of supergroup status. But greatness, as guitarist The Edge explained, could not be copied. The band did not want to release War II. Nor did they.
The Unforgettable Fire was tepidly received. Rolling Stone gave the band’s fourth studio album three of five stars, and Kurt Loder wrote, “U2 flickers and nearly fades, its fire banked by a misconceived production strategy and occasional interludes of soggy, songless self-indulgence. This is not a ‘bad’ album, but neither is it the irrefutable beauty the band’s fans anticipated.”
(Loder eloquently punned lines from “Indian Summer Sky” — “To lose along the way the spark that set the flame/To flicker and to fade on this the longest day” — and the song title, “Bad.”)
As I teenager (I was 14 at the time), I was crushed and perplexed by the reviews. The single release of “Pride (In the Name of Love)” indicated that greatness was about to achieved. I could not comprehend any effort that failed to rise above any previous effort of the band.
So, on the day of its release, I hopped on my bike and rode to Condor Records in Dana Point, California. I was anxious. How could such an album fail? It was unimaginable, worse still, unacceptable.
At home, I unwrapped the album. The boards were not made of glossy material (that struck me as peculiar and different), and only two of the members (Bono and The Edge?) appeared on the cover. The first track, “A Sort of Homecoming,” was merely pleasant; Bono’s voice seemed to quaver. (I noted mentally that I would have to come back to it.) The second, “Pride,” fell appropriately after the first. The third, “Wire,” was underwhelming. It seemed it should have been a great song, but it was not. The same seemed to applied to the rest of the album. Perhaps, I thought, U2 should have released War II (but I felt they were wise not to).
For the next several weeks, “Pride” was the entire album. My adolescent self largely ignored the rest of album, though I thought I would to come back to it at some later point.
Then came the tour.
“Bad” became an anthem. “A Sort of Homecoming,” a testimony. And “The Unforgettable Fire,” a statement. So iconic was “Bad,” in fact, that it become a staple on U2’s set and has been performed well over 500 times. It is difficult to imagine U2 without these songs.
Today, my assessment of the album is very different: I rank it as U2’s finest effort. Its greatness, in my estimation, lies in its falling short of greatness. It’s always approachable, so filled with unrealized potential. It’s never final.
Neither is U2’s music.
Fast forward to St. Patrick’s Day, 2023. A new release: Songs of Surrender, a four disc re-imagining of U2’s oeuvre. And the reviews are mixed. The anthems, the soaring melodies, are (in the minds of some critics) muted. Neither is the band entirely present. While Adam Clayton provides bass lines, Larry plays nothing at all (he suffers from several injuries common to drummers and was unable to contribute; his parts are mainly loops from previous recordings).
Ultimately, this is Bono and The Edge’s project, but it is U2’s music. Never final. Ever evolving.
(U2 themselves have noted the marriage of Bono & The Edge and Adam Clayton & Larry Mullen Jr. U2 are two parts, one whole.)
I do not have the critical distance necessary to objectively critique Songs of Surrender. I’m a lifelong fan and the songs have become my own. (Somewhere recently, I heard Bono make such a statement.) Apart from Pop, I celebrate U2’s entire catalog. I’m unapologetic, unable to say anything critical. But I will say that these re-imaginings are compelling, bordering on greatness.
The Edge provides vocals on “Stories for Boys,” “Two Hearts Beat as One,” and, I believe, “Peace on Earth,” demonstrating the parts of U2 are interchangeable — (Bono and The Edge have similar voices) — and the re-imagined songs are bold and innovative, at once confident and vulnerable.
U2 have surrendered these songs.
They cannot be critiqued, only heard.
© 2023, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.