After a pandemic period marked mostly by retrospective projects, U2 is moving forward once again.
On Friday (March 17 – St. Patrick’s Day, appropriately enough), the Irish quartet brought forth Songs of Surrender, its first new album in six years — a companion of sorts to frontman Bono’s 2022 memoir — that finds the band reimagining 40 songs from throughout its career. It is accompanied by Bono & The Edge: A Sort Of Homecoming, With Dave Letterman, a documentary that is now streaming on Disney+. U2 also unveiled a U2SOS40 video series that will eventually feature 60-second clips, by different creators, for each of the songs, while the band’s return to live performing will take place this fall as the inaugural concerts at the MSG Sphere in Las Vegas.
And if that isn’t enough, bassist Adam Clayton has also partnered with Fender for a new amplifier, the ACB 50. “It feels like a bonus the whole way, just because this is at a time in your life where you don’t expect to be this busy,” Clayton, who turned 63 last week, tells Billboard via Zoom from Dublin. “I guess we’re very lucky that we get to do the thing that we’ve always loved doing and we’re still doing it, and somehow we’re still getting better at doing it. At some point I suppose the arc changes, but I don’t feel like we’re at that point yet. I think we’ve got a lot of extra knowledge along the way that we’ve picked up and we can make better and better records from here on out.”
Songs of Surrender is certainly a project that came as a surprise. That album, according to Clayton, was spurred directly by Bono’s best-selling Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story, in which the singer used 40 U2 songs as a narrative vehicle for his story. The album, according to Clayton, “was one of the more organic processes that U2 engaged in. We started to talk about what we could be doing while (Bono) was busy making this book. Edge said, ‘Let me have a look at those titles. Let me see if I can come up with a different space for those songs so we can present them in a way where the narrative of the song in some way is associated to the arc of the book.'” The Edge began creating drastically different arrangements, mostly stripped down and more intimate, sometimes changing lyrics and even vocalists; The Edge, in fact, stepped up to sing several of the tracks himself.
“We started to see that a lot of the early songs that had felt incomplete or unfinished or naive, when one looked at them now, those were songs with a lot of DNA and intuition on them,” Clayton explains. “From the position of being in our sixties, those lyrics and those songs meant something, and it meant Edge could slow them down. He could bring the key down. Bono could deliver the vocals in a different way. And suddenly there was a personality that had much more of the gravitas of a story that Johnny Cash or Willie Nelson might tell. It engaged with you in a different way. It stopped you thinking about that big ol’ 80s rock band that had this big, stadium-filling sound.”
The bassist has some favorites amongst the 40, including “Stories For Boys,” which Clayton calls “a beautiful insight into Edge as an artist and a singer,” and “All I Want Is You,” which allowed him to do some acoustic bass playing where “I can really hear the air moving and I can hear my fingers on the strings, and I just like that intimacy.”
While each grouping of 10 songs is consigned to one member of the band, that’s more of a packaging element than anything symbolic, he says. “It was after everything was recorded,” he says, “so it wasn’t that I curated the tracks that were gonna be on my (side of) the record. I’m not gonna say it’s random, but it’s not premeditated as such. It’s open to whatever interpretation the listener might want to make. But I think I made out pretty well because I have a lot of good, melodic material but I also have some of the heavy-hitting rock tunes. And I get ‘Electrical Storm,’ which is one of my favorites, I have to say. And I think the version of ‘The Fly’ that makes it onto my record is interesting as well; it shows that we weren’t averse to using a little bit of electronica whenever the color demanded it.”
The big surprise in his batch, Clayton adds, is spectral “Desire” from 1988’s Rattle and Hum, sung by The Edge in falsetto. “It’s quite odd and challenging, and I accept that, because it’s got a very, very heavy keyboard bass, which is nice. It’s not really the way I would’ve expected to hear ‘Desire,’ but I’ll certainly take that bass keyboard part. I loved that.”
Songs of Surrender and the Disney+ documentary were generated by U2’s prominent frontline, Bono and The Edge, In fact, a note during the end credits of A Sort of Homecoming finds them thanking Clayton and Mullen for “letting us go rogue” with that project. Clayton says he has no objections to them taking the reins. “How can you be pissed off with people that you’ve done really well by for such a long time,” he explains. “I’m a big fan of Bono and Edge, and of Larry. I love to see Bono and Edge do interesting things.” He proclaims “big respect” for Bono’s book and for the series of solo concerts he’s been performing around it, and for The Edge taking the reins with Songs of Surrender. “I’m grateful to be in a band with those two extraordinary talents and hard-working people. They’re great songwriters, great artists but they’re great humanitarians and they’re really great people. I need to be inspired and I need to be led by that kind of thinking. I believe in music as a higher art, a higher form, and you don’t have to be dumbed down by it. You can change the world with a guitar — that’s what I signed up for.”
U2 will be looking to do just that later this year in Las Vegas. Dates have not yet been announced but rehearsals will be starting soon, and while the shows will feature 1991’s Achtung Baby album in its entirety, Clayton says “that’s only gonna be about an hour of the show, so we’re gonna have to find a way of going other places as well.” The shows will also be the first U2 has performed without Mullen, who’s taking the year off to treat and recuperate from various injuries he’s accumulated over the years; Bram van den Berg from the Dutch band Krezip will be filling the void.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” Clayton says. “I haven’t played with anyone else before. I know playing with Larry Mullen, he always made me sound good, and that was half the job done. So it might just keep us on our toes. I’m sure we’ll find our groove. I think Bram is a great player. He’s got a great reputation. He’s a lovely man. If the musician’s heart is in the right place, the music follows without too much difficulty.”
There’s plenty on the U2’s agenda as well. The band members have recently spoken about new music, and that they’ve put a planned Songs of Ascent on the back burner in favor of something louder and more aggressive. “That’s the intention,” Clayton acknowledges. “I think we’re feeling that music has kind of got stuck a little bit. We’re feeling that probably with modern processing and modern production techniques and the use of digital that it’s lost some of its spontaneity and some of its rawness, and I think we’re hoping that we can kind of connect back to that rawness that we were excited by as teenagers.” That said, Clayton adds that only “some very, very minimal” recording has been done so far.
“Edge is always working on stuff,” Clayton notes, “but until we get the Sphere shows out of the way and we know what’s going to be happening with Larry, it’ll be very hard to organize what we’ve got and figure out what the plan will be.”
Also on U2’s plate is some archival documentary work. “We’re amazed by the amount of out there on the Beatles or whatever, and there’s some real value to that material,” Clayton says. “During this whole lockdown period we kinda started to go back through our archive and develop some stuff…and put together some sort of a narrative on the history of the band. It will tell a different story of U2. I think everybody thinks they probably know the U2 story reasonably well at this point…and of course it’s only one version of the story. There are other things to our story that we’re excited to be bringing to people.”
As for his new amplifier, Clayton considers it “another one of those once in a lifetime experiences.” He was inspired to pursue it when Fender did a signature guitar amp with The Edge — “I got a little jealous, I guess. I thought, ‘Well, if Edge can have an amp, I’m gonna have an amp!'” — and took the idea to the company, which has not routinely done signature bass amps. He worked with technicians to develop an all-in-one combo amplifier he describes as “the loudest 50 watts you’re ever gonna need,” noting it also has more mid-range than Fender bass amps had previously produced. “You can fit it in a smart car and carry it up the stairs on your shoulder as well,” he notes. “It’s the kind of amp you can take anywhere. You can do anything with it, and it just keeps on giving.” Clayton plans to use several of the ACB 50s during U2’s live dates, positioned under the stage. Details about the amp can be found via fender.com.