U2 UNPLUGGED (... plus synths, flutes, a choir and brass band)
NEVER a band to do things by halves, U2 cram an awful lot into a new album that is supposedly one of their more intimate endeavours.
Taking 40 of their best-loved tracks and re-recording them in a less bombastic style, Songs Of Surrender is U2 unplugged … with the proviso that U2 unplugged involves a lot more than a few gently strummed guitars. As well as the back-to-basics acoustic instruments there are synthesisers, flutes, cellos, a choir and brass band.
Guitarist The Edge, who devised the project as an experiment in his front room during lockdown, even adorns two numbers (Invisible and The Fly) with that most un-rock and roll of stringed instruments: the dulcimer.
The record comes at a pivotal point for the Irish band, who remain one of the world’s biggest rock acts on the back of their jaw-dropping live shows. Later this year, they will play a Las Vegas residency without founder member Larry Mullen, who is undergoing surgery brought on by decades of drumming, prompting speculation that a split could be imminent.
The quartet have strongly denied this, despite a sense that they have been treading water on their last few albums. On 2009’s No Line On The Horizon, they struggled to keep abreast of pop trends, while 2014’s Songs Of Innocence, plonked rashly onto millions of mobile phones, was a PR disaster.
This record — a companion to singer Bono’s recent memoir — is a chance to take stock. ‘We got into the sensibility of less is more,’ says The Edge, who co-produced the four discs here with Canadian rock veteran Bob Ezrin.
THAT’S certainly true in places. Despite his reputation as an explosive guitarist, he often sidelines his main instrument, electing to play piano and other keyboards on minimalist versions of One, Stay and If God Will Send His Angels.
The songs of the band’s youth are given mature makeovers. The Edge’s finger-picked guitar on Out Of Control is a joy, giving Bono’s lyrics an unfussy backdrop.
Another song from 1980, 11 O’Clock Tick Tock, gets a similarly delicate revamp, dispelling suspicions that Songs Of Surrender is merely an exercise in nostalgia: that may have been true of 2017’s The Joshua Tree tour, but it’s not the case here.
There are some bold new embellishments. Where The Streets Have No Name is boosted by cellist Stjepan Hauser, and Beautiful Day is refreshed with a six-piece choir and backing singers. Pride (In The Name Of Love) arrives, literally, with bells on. There are other inventive touches. I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For features husky backing vocals from the track’s original producers, Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois.
Elsewhere, Sunday Bloody Sunday gains an extra verse and Walk On has been amended to take account of the war in Ukraine.
Last May, Bono and The Edge played a gig in a Kyiv underground station and met President Zelensky, whose previous career as a comic actor is the clear inspiration behind Walk On’s new lyrics: ‘This is not a curtain call/ This is the greatest act of all/A stand-up for freedom.’
Not everything hits the spot. Two Hearts Beat As One lacks the drive of the original and there are surprising omissions, with nothing from 1981’s October and no place for 1983’s New Year’s Day or 1991’s Mysterious Ways.
But, for an album that began with a guitarist tinkering around on a piano, Songs Of Surrender — which is also available in more digestible 16 and 20track editions — does a remarkable job of twisting old favourites into new shapes.
■ AS THE daughter of country star Billy Ray Cyrus and goddaughter of Dolly Parton, Miley Cyrus grew up with the sounds of Nashville, so it’s no surprise that she sings with an expressive richness that’s beyond many of her peers.
Her range and versatility are to the fore on Endless Summer Vacation, but it’s an album that falls short of expectations.
Unlike 2020’ s excellent Plastic Hearts, it’s dominated by the kind of hazy, mid-tempo moods that have become commonplace in pop since Billie Eilish’s debut album, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? Dealing in pastel shades rather than bold colours, its slow, languid songs reveal themselves over time, but are far from immediate.
Current single Flowers sets a high bar. Produced, like much of this album, by Harry Styles’ backroom team of Kid Harpoon and Tyler Johnson, it’s a subtly addictive ear-worm rather than an out-andout banger, although that hasn’t prevented it from topping the UK charts for eight weeks (and counting) and breaking weekly streaming records on Spotify.
There’s nothing else of that calibre. The first half of an album described by Cyrus as a ‘love letter to LA’ augments her husky vocals with a live band.
She rakes over the embers of an old affair, probably her two- year marriage to actor Liam Hemsworth, on Jaded, and duets with Brandi Carlile on the harmonica-enhanced country ballad Thousand Miles.
As we move on, there’s a shift to slinkier, synth-powered numbers that set out to replicate the wilder side of LA life. ‘Don’t forget, baby, I’m a wildcard,’ she sings on Wildcard, and Handstand is a shuddering fever- dream with stream- ofconsciousness lyrics (‘electric eels and red venom’). But the remaining electro tracks have a generic feel.
There’s a hint of what might have been on closing track Wonder Woman, a piano piece that reiterates Miley’s emotional power.
It’s a fine finale — but a little more of her old, wrecking- ball spirit wouldn’t have gone amiss.
■ SONGS of Surrender is out as a quadruple vinyl LP (£94), double vinyl LP (£33), 4-CD set (£30), single CD (£15) and digitally.