The new remaster and reissue of John Lennon’s second studio album Imagine comes around at an unusual time. The six-disc set (four CDs and two Blu-ray discs) comes mere weeks before the much ballyhooed deluxe re-release of The Beatles’ “White Album,” and it is three years out from being tied into the 50th anniversary of its original issue. The impetus for this Ultimate Collection seems to be the unearthing of a raw demo of the title track, found two years ago.
The piano and vocals only run through “Imagine” is worth revisiting, as it is Lennon at his most open and yearning. It is, in some ways, a better rendition than the hugely successful version that was released as a single a month after the album dropped. With no concerns about getting a perfect vocal take for posterity, he lets himself get a little scratchy and sharp, elements that bring out the aching earnestness of his hopeful lyrics.
Was that worth the expense paid to remix the album, tracks from singles that Lennon and wife Yoko Ono released around the same time and assorted outtakes for 5.1 surround sound and Quadrasonic 4.0? Not really. The album is not as rough and in-the-moment as his previous solo endeavor John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, but it’s not as sonically adventurous as his work in The Beatles or the efforts of Imagine’s producer Phil Spector. According to the press notes for this boxed set, the idea was to put “the listener in the center of Ascot Sound Studios with Lennon in front and the band playing all around and behind.” It’s a neat trick, but what really is to be gained from such efforts, other than to show off your high end home theater system?
More illuminating is the accompanying hardcover book that walks through the making of the album and the inspiration behind each track. According to interviews Lennon gave at the time of Imagine’s release, he and Ono did everything in their considerable powers to rein in Spector’s Wall of Sound instincts. The pushback worked. Even with the overdubs of a string section and other details, the blank space in the music allows his personal agonies, political concerns and unbound love for his wife to deeply resonate.
A great companion to the book is the fourth CD in the set, subtitled The Evolution Documentary. The hour-long disc walks listeners through the various stages of the creative process, using interviews recorded by Elliot Mintz, demo versions and the studio tapes to offer a picture of how each song came to be. For fellow musicians, it’s a master class in how material is massaged and edited on its path to being pressed on to wax. The pointed quality of the Documentary is also a boon for casual fans who might not have the patience for Take #40 of “How?” or the alternate mix of “Happy Xmas (War Is Over).”
For those who don’t count themselves as Beatlemaniacs, or cost conscious listeners, there are humbler options like a two-CD/LP expanded edition and a single CD version. For most of the world’s music fans, that’s more than enough. The remaster of the original album tracks puts you just as close to the feeling of being in the studio as a surround sound version would. Like the work Pixar’s animators did to highlight every strand of Sully’s fur in Monsters, Inc., listeners can now marvel at the detail in each individual instrument or take a step back to fully admire the entire array of textures and color in the songs.
And Ono’s insistence that the engineers put a touch of emphasis on her husband’s vocals was the perfect finishing touch, as these are Lennon’s best performances as solo artist. He moved through the various moods of the album with repose and care, even when using his platform to snark at his old bandmate Paul McCartney. If this is the final word on the subject of Imagine, this set, in all its configurations, is the perfect capstone to what remains Lennon’s most concise solo statement.
Listen to John Lennon live at Madison Square Garden in 1972 below: