U2 Songs of Surrender review – all the anthems, but smaller

U2 have always dealt in grand gestures. No other rock artists from the world of post-punk chased megastardom with the same missionary zeal: they seldom made any bones about wanting to be the biggest band in the world, something they duly achieved in grandstanding style. Their tours have involved everything from stage sets so big they required aircraft warning lights to prank calling the White House to the highest-resolution video screen ever seen at a gig: the most recent one grossed $390m. Even when they screw up, it’s on a monumental scale: the PopMart tour of 1998, with its malfunctioning 40ft motorised mirrorball – or was it a giant lemon? – that got stuck; the debacle of Songs of Innocence’s unexpected appearance in 500 million iTunes users’ libraries.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that what should theoretically be a low-key project – reworking their back catalogue in muted, largely acoustic style – has turned into an epic undertaking. Songs of Surrender is 40 tracks long and lasts the best part of three hours. So much for understatement. Neither a greatest hits nor a selection of deep cuts, its title suggests a link to Bono’s recent autobiography, Surrender, its 40 chapters each named after a U2 song – but that’s not quite the case. Picked by all four members, 11 of Songs of Surrender’s tracks don’t appear in Bono’s book. The main takeaway from its tracklisting is that U2 think Songs of Innocence was underrated, its contents drowned out by the iTunes controversy: it has a stronger presence here than any other album.

The record’s conceptual shakiness is less of an issue than its unwieldiness, at least if you try to listen to it in one sitting. Given the album’s self-imposed sonic parameters (largely piano, guitar and synth washes; little in the way of drums) it struggles to hold your attention. Taken in smaller doses, there are great moments marked by a sense of genuine reinvention: a fantastic, brass-assisted take on The Joshua Tree’s Red Hill Mining Town; a version of Every Breaking Wave that supports the band’s point about the contents of Songs of Innocence being undervalued; early single 11 O’Clock Tick Tock stripped back to make the power of the melody more obvious.

The last one also features one of Songs of Surrender’s most consistently intriguing sounds, that of the Edge adapting guitar parts influenced by PiL’s Keith Levene, and heavily dependent on echo and signal processing, to a more straightforward acoustic sound. The best example comes with Achtung Baby’s The Fly, which eschews the original’s feedback-strafed sound, heavy on wah pedal, for loose, organic funk decorated with eerie backing vocals. It’s run close by Desire, ripping out the original’s muscular heft, leaving a falsetto vocal treated with effects: it suddenly sounds like a song about being weak with love, about a clinging desperation.

But Desire and The Fly are the exceptions that prove Songs of Surrender’s basic rule. For the most part, the biggest songs here don’t work rendered in soft-focus miniature. Maybe With or Without You, Pride et al are simply too familiar, or they were too efficiently constructed with the aim of moving stadiums full of people en masse: their widescreen ambitions an integral part of their appeal, a sense of intimacy hard to locate. At best they sound pleasantly inessential, the kind of thing that would once have been confined to track three on a CD single, and at worst their gentle piano figures and hushed ambience sound like cover versions commissioned for a bank advert. It’s certainly more fun hearing tracks excavated from the recesses and reconsidered – Zooropa’s Dirty Day; How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb’s lovely Miracle Drug – than listening to U2 struggling to work out what to do with Vertigo and Get Out of Your Own Way and not coming up with a satisfactory answer: the strings on the former are no replacement for raging guitars, the latter loses all its propulsion stripped of its motorik beat in favour of a rough busking.

Related: Bono on the birth of U2, that iTunes album and Live Aid: ‘There’s only one thing I can see when I watch it: the mullet’

Neither a disaster on the level of their iTunes launch, nor a triumph to match Zoo TV, Songs of Surrender sits somewhere in the middle of that sliding scale of success. It might have been more satisfying if U2 had stuck to digging through the more recherche corners of their catalogue, or used it as an opportunity to rework music they felt was underdone first time around: instead, their rushed second album October and 2009’s coolly received No Line on the Horizon are discreetly ignored and only bassist Adam Clayton picks a track from 1997’s derided Pop. But then, without the hits and the lyrical tweaks to update celebrated songs – Walk On altered to reference Ukraine rather than Aung San Suu Kyi; Pride appended to mention Alan Kurdi – Songs of Surrender would have seemed less grand a gesture: less U2.

This week Alexis listened to

Lankum – The Turn
The 13-minute closing track from the Dublin quartet’s new album is dark-hued folk that turns into something far more avant, so bleak in its outlook it borders on the cathartic. As does the burst of noise it concludes with.