Composite photographs by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images; Call by Clayton/Redferns/Getty Images
As U2 announced last week, they’ll be back in March with a brand new album that, really, is anything but. surrender songsplaying on Bono’s recent memoir Surrender: 40 songs, one storyfinds the band redoing 40 songs from its back catalog – “a musical reinvention resulting in a completely new recording of every track, to include the arrangements and, in some cases, new lyrics.”
Unsurprisingly, when it comes to a band that can still polarize after four decades, the reactions rocked and hummed. On rolling stoneOn ‘s social media alone, responses ranged from gleeful (“awesome!” or “they never cease to amaze me”) to skeptical (“give in to insignificance” or “I’m reinventing my aversion to U2” ). We’ll judge for ourselves when the album is released on March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day – but one thing seems clear: the very idea of a musical act remaking their old songs and albums, once considered as suspect or wasted effort, is suddenly too legitimate to give up. And that has some pretty profound implications for musicians and fans.
Projects like these have been around for decades, of course. Pop history is full of artists or bands who revisit their old songs, often for professional reasons. When pioneers like Chuck Berry and the Everly Brothers, to name just two examples, changed record labels early in their careers, they re-cut their best-known songs for new “greatest hits” albums. Unfortunately, these redos boiled down to often bloodless collections that only satisfied their new bosses.
The trend seemed to die out for a long time until, starting in the 90s and continuing into this century, artists and bands realized they could make more money by licensing their songs for movies and television if they cut remakes note for perfect note. and released them on their own or on a new label (so their old labels wouldn’t get the money). Such was the case with Wang Chung’s remake “Everybody Have Fun Tonight,” cheekily titled Squeeze find the difference self-cover album, and Def Leppard, who made what singer Joe Elliott proudly called “complete forgeries” of their hits just to earn more on licensing revenue. As the MetalRules.com website has reported, there are now enough full-length metal and hard-rock record remakes to fill an entire bin in a record store.
Another factor in overhauling old recordings is an artist’s dissatisfaction with the way the originals sounded. In 2017, Lucinda Williams cuts across the years 1992 sweet old world as This sweet old world, rearranging songs and rewriting lyrics here and there, just like U2 does. Similarly, Natalie Merchant debuted after 10,000 Maniacs, tigerlily, a redesign a few years ago, indicating that she was not entirely satisfied with the original arrangements and that her voice was newly mature. The projects had to be elegant and not backward-looking.
But few artists have re-energized (and validated) the decision to re-record music from the past like Taylor Swift. When the global superstar announced plans to recut his debut albums, the decision was down to business. After her catalog was sold, Swift wanted competing sounds that could generate additional revenue when she licensed her own versions of those same songs. Sure enough, “Love Story (Taylor’s Version),” was first featured in a commercial.
When Swift released her first two remade albums, Dauntless (Taylor Version) an/a Red (Taylor’s version), they have been embraced by fans and the media. Part of the reception had to do with Swift’s popularity and part with the backstory of the albums, but overnight the concept of remaking old songs took hold in a way that it never did. had never had before. Even when respected names like Williams, Merchant and Paul Simon (on 2018 In the blue lightSimon resurrected deep cuts from his solo catalog) revisited their pasts, the projects were deemed interesting but marginal.
Now we have another high-profile act doing the same thing. So far, U2 has only previewed one full track of surrender songs: a revamp of “Pride (in the Name of Love)” that replaces the original’s soaring exclamations of zeal with a muted chamber pop arrangement that wouldn’t have been out of place in the 90s 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” attempts to show, one of the rationales behind re-recordings is that vintage material can be enhanced by an artist’s lifetime experience; old songs can take on new layers and add depth when sung with vocals that convey hard-earned lessons. Sometimes it’s true. When George Jones and producer Billy Sherrill recut a bunch of Jones’ early hits for the 1977 compilation Greatest Hits of All Time Vol. 1, some of the slower ballads felt more lived-in, reflecting Jones’ bumpy life up to that point. More recently, St. Vincent re-recorded Masseduction as mass educationand it worked: the revised arrangements, largely centered on his voice and piano, were less mannered than the originals and reveled in the inherent beauty of his songwriting.
However, risks remain: the voice of some artists is not as strong as in their youth, and the comparisons can be glaring. But that doesn’t seem to be slowing down the trend of re-recordings. Thanks to the tacit approval of Swift and U2, it may only be a matter of time before other giants, regardless of generation or gender, decide to remake their past, knowing that there is a lot to it. less risk (and more possible financial reward) than it once did.
It’s possible that fans will agree with this storyline as well. After all, some of them are less skeptical of their heroes than previous generations, and classic rock devotees are already used to the sight and sound of touring rockers in the 70s and 80s. the joke goes, the past isn’t what it used to be – and increasingly, that could apply to pop, too.