Quick—what is John Lennon’s greatest achievement as a solo artist? Answer: his 1970 debut studio album, Plastic Ono Band. Every track a classic. Sparse instrumentation and production. Lennon’s voice upfront throughout. Incisive, emotive, thought-provoking lyrics. A super-deluxe edition of that album could be one of rock music’s most indispensable releases.
But instead we must settle for the 1971 follow-up, Imagine, a pretty sturdy album in its own right. And because the worldwide peace anthem that is the title track, now officially a John Lennon/Yoko Ono composition (gotta love historical revisionism, right?), UMe has issued Imagine in what could easily be deemed the most comprehensive box set by any former Beatle. Whether or not this particular batch of ten tunes can really sustain interest over four CDs and two audio Blu-ray discs, that’ll depend on you level of Lennon-fanaticism.
The first disc presents a rather gorgeous remix of the original album that brings out subtle nuances in the musicianship. Imagine was always a bit muddy, fidelity-wise, so it’s always nice to hear a layer of gauze lifted off the original mix/master. This isn’t the first time the album has been remixed, and I, personally, have yet to dig out the previous remix to compare/contrast choices made by the new production team. But the current version is quite clear and warm. There are also a number of bonus tracks (including the 1971 hit single “Power to the People”).
Over discs two and three, we hear beaucoup unreleased takes, alternate mixes, and rehearsals. Some of these are marginally interesting and not all that different than the corresponding album take. Others (including some fascinating run-throughs of “I Don’t Wanna Be a Soldier Mama”) are worthwhile windows into Lennon’s artistic process. The fourth disc offers a rather unique set of “Evolution Documentary” pieces that presents a montage of studio chatter, warm-ups, excerpts of takes—one for each of the album’s ten tracks.
That fourth disc just might be the go-to one for quick reference, as it’s far more concise than wading through dozens of different mixes (there’s a striking strings-only mix of the title track that allows for greater appreciation of the arrangement) and takes. The Blu-ray discs (which, it must be emphasized, do not contain video material) have even more extensive “Evolution Documentary” tracks (the bonus tracks found on CD one) and even more studio outtakes than are found on the CDs. There are also extensive audio interviews with broadcaster and Lennon-Ono family friend Elliot Mintz.
The Ultimate Collection comes packaged with a hardcover book that is positively loaded with background on the recording sessions, track-by-track musician credits, lyrics, and printed commentary by Lennon and most everyone involved in the creation of the album (and the new box set). Does this collection live up to its billing? I don’t know how it could be anymore complete, shy of issuing literally every bit of tape available (which of course would be overkill, if this set isn’t already).