By David Browne
As U2 announced last week, they’ll be back in March with a brand new album that, really, is anything but. Songs of Surrender, playing off Bono’s recent memoir Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, finds the band remaking 40 songs from its back catalog — “a musical reimagining resulting in a completely new recording of each track, to include the arrangements and, in some cases, new lyrics.”
Not surprisingly, when it comes to a band that can still be polarizing after four decades, reactions rattled and hummed. On Rolling Stone’s social media feeds alone, the responses ranged from gleeful (“awesome!” or “they never cease to amaze me”) to skeptical (“surrendering to irrelevance” or “I’m reimagining my dislike of U2”). We’ll judge for ourselves when the album is released March 17 — on St. Patrick’s Day — but one thing seems clear: The very thought of a musical act remaking his, her, or their old songs and albums, once considered a suspect or pointless endeavor, is suddenly too legit to quit. And that has some pretty profound implications for musicians and fans alike.
Projects like these have been around for decades, of course. The history of pop is replete with artists or bands giving their old songs a do-over, often for business-minded reasons. When pioneers like Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers, to cite just two examples, switched record companies early in their careers, they recut their best-known songs for new “greatest hits” albums. Unfortunately, those redos amounted to often bloodless collections that only satisfied their new bosses.
The trend seemed to die out for a long time until, starting in the Nineties and continuing into this century, artists and bands realized they could earn more money when licensing their songs for movies and TV if they cut note-for-perfect-note remakes and released them on their own or a new label (so that their old labels didn’t get the cash). Such was the case with Wang Chung’s remade “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” Squeeze’s cheekily titled Spot the Difference self-covers album, and Def Leppard, who made what singer Joe Elliott proudly called “complete forgeries” of their hits just so they’d earn more off licensing income. As the website MetalRules.com has chronicled, there are now enough full remakes of metal and hard-rock discs to fill an entire bin at a record store.
Another factor in remaking old recordings is an artist’s dissatisfaction with the way the originals sounded. In 2017, Lucinda Williams recut 1992’s Sweet Old World as This Sweet Old World, rearranging the songs and rewriting lyrics here and there, just as U2 are doing. Similarly, Natalie Merchant gave her post-10,000 Maniacs debut, Tigerlily, a redo a few years ago, indicating that she hadn’t been fully happy with the original arrangements and that her voice was newly mature. The projects were meant to be classy, not backward-looking.
But few artists have reenergized (and validated) the decision to re-record past music like Taylor Swift. When the global superstar announced her plan to recut her early albums, the decision was moored in business. After her catalog had been sold, Swift wanted competing soundalikes that could bring in added revenue when she licensed her own versions of those same songs. Sure enough, “Love Story (Taylor’s Version),” was first previewed in a commercial.
When Swift released her first two remade albums, Fearless (Taylor’s Version) and Red (Taylor’s Version), they were embraced by both fans and media. Part of the reception had to do with Swift’s popularity, and another part with the albums’ headline-nabbing backstory, but overnight, the concept of remaking old songs became validated in a way it never had before. Even when respected names like Williams, Merchant, and Paul Simon (on 2018’s In the Blue Light, Simon resurrected deep cuts from his solo catalog) revisited their pasts, the projects were considered interesting but marginal.
Now we have another upper-top-tier act making the same move. So far, U2 have only previewed one full track from Songs of Surrender: an overhaul of “Pride (in the Name of Love)” that replaces the exclamatory, reach-for-the-sky zeal of the original with a muted, chamber-pop arrangement that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Nineties episode of MTV Unplugged. Singing in a lower register, Bono sounds more like late-period David Bowie than his old self.
As the 2023 version of “Pride” tries to show, one of the rationalizations behind re-records is that vintage material can be enhanced by an artist’s life experience; old songs can take on new layers and added depth when sung in voices that convey hard-won lessons. Sometimes that’s true. When George Jones and producer Billy Sherrill recut a bunch of Jones’ earliest hits for the 1977 compilation All-Time Greatest Hits Vol. 1, some of the slower ballads felt more lived-in, reflecting Jones’ bumpy life ride to that point. More recently, St. Vincent re-recorded Masseduction as MassEducation, and it worked: The revised arrangements, largely centered around her voice and piano, were less mannered than the originals and reveled in the inherent beauty of her songwriting.
Still, risks remain: some artists’ voices don’t sound nearly as strong as they did in their youths, and the comparisons can be glaring. But that doesn’t seem to be slowing down the re-record trend. Thanks to the tacit approval of Swift and U2, it may only be a matter of time before other giants, no matter the generation or genre, decide to remake their pasts, knowing it carries far less risk (and more possible financial reward) than it once did.
It’s possible that fans will be OK with that scenario too. After all, some of them are less skeptical of their heroes than past generations, and classic-rock loyalists are already accustomed to the sight and sound of rockers touring into their seventies and eighties. As the joke goes, the past isn’t what it used to be — and more and more, that could apply to pop as well.
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