U2 Revisits Its Past, in the Name of … What, Exactly?

With “Songs of Surrender,” an album of 40 reimagined songs, and “A Sort of Homecoming,” a documentary on Disney+, the Irish band pauses to reflect.

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By Jon Pareles

For decades, U2 refused to rest on its catalog. A rarity among bands for having kept the same lineup since its formation in 1976 — Bono on lead vocals, the Edge on guitar and keyboards, Adam Clayton on bass and Larry Mullen Jr. on drums — U2 has headlined arenas since the early 1980s. It determinedly brought new songs to huge audiences as recently as 2018, when it mounted its Experience + Innocence Tour.

The band did allow itself a 30th anniversary stadium tour to reprise its biggest release, the 1987 album “The Joshua Tree,” in 2017 and 2019. And now, in the pandemic era, U2 is looking back even further.

Its new album, “Songs of Surrender,” remakes 40 U2 songs with largely acoustic arrangements. U2 has also booked a Las Vegas residency for the fall, when it will revisit its 1991 masterpiece, “Achtung Baby,” in a newly built arena, the MSG Sphere. In a startling change, the band will have a substitute drummer, Bram van den Berg, rather than Mullen, who has been dealing with injuries to his elbows, knees and neck.

Bono, 62, published his memoir, “Surrender,” in fall of 2022, using 40 U2 songs as chapter headings. On St. Patrick’s Day, the (Irish) band is releasing a Disney+ documentary, “Bono & the Edge: A Sort of Homecoming, With Dave Letterman,” alongside “Songs of Surrender.”

U2’s career has been one of triumphs, misfires and moving on. In the 1980s, the group was earnest and expansive, creating a chiming, marching, larger-than-life rock sound that countless bands would emulate. In the 1990s, leery of its own pretensions, U2 remade itself with electronic beats and artifice until it came to a dead end with its 1997 album, “Pop.” In the 2000s, it circled back to rock beats and sincerity, but its music was pervasively infused with the latest technology.

From the beginning, U2 has worked on the largest scale: sometimes to magnificent effect, like its 2002 Super Bowl halftime show that memorialized Sept. 11, and sometimes badly backfiring, like the giveaway of its 2014 album, “Songs of Innocence,” that forced the album into iTunes libraries worldwide, often unwanted. “Songs of Surrender” is an act of renunciation, drastically scaling down songs that once strove to shake entire stadiums.

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