Holiday Gift Alert! Music Review: John Lennon - Imagine: The Ultimate Collection

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Is it the greatest album by a former member of the Fab Four? Some may argue so. Is it the greatest album by John Lennon? It's safe to say many would claim that, too. Though deserving of neither title, Lennon's Imagine is indeed a classic. And now it has received the most comprehensive deluxe reissue of any individual album by an ex-Beatle. Imagine: The Ultimate Collection contains, at its core, a new stereo remix of the original ten-track 1971 album, augmented by six bonus tracks.

That much is available as a single-disc release, helpful in case your holiday dollar is already stretched thin. This is, after all, an incredibly rich season for Beatlemaniacs, what with the 50th anniversary box set of The Beatles (aka the "White Album"), of course this Imagine box, and upcoming Paul McCartney Archive Collection box sets of Wild Life (also 1971) and Red Rose Speedway (1973). So, depending on your level of Beatles completism, the single-disc Imagine may be enough (to my ears, the new remix sounds terrific—warm and detailed).

But The Ultimate Collection, for those with keen interest and patience, is a fascinating expansion of Lennon's remarkable album. Over the course of three additional CDs, we hear alternate takes (occasionally significantly different), alternate mixes (sometimes isolating very limited elements of a given song), and an absorbing "Evolution Documentary" that allows us to hear how each song was developed in the studio.

Imagine is an uneven album (not so in the case of Plastic Ono Band (1970)—the crowning achievement of Lennon's tragically curtailed career). While the title track and the aching "Jealous Guy" are absolute magic, the honky-tonk affectations of "Crippled Inside" and the lyrical banality of "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama I Don't Wanna Die" are less rewarding. It's also a somewhat muddy-sounding recording overall (has been since its original release), especially when compared to the crystalline Plastic Ono Band from the year before. That said, the new remix/remaster goes some ways to making the album sound more aurally pleasing.

The second CD offers "Elements Mixes" (including a beautiful strings-only mix of "Imagine"), "Album Outtakes" (including a two-years-earlier run-through of "Oh Yoko!" and a hard-jammin' take on "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier"), and "Singles Outtakes" (with the undisputed gem being Take 7 of "Power to the People," which is stripped of the extraneous over-production of the released single), plus a gently funny take on "God Save Us").

As we move into the third disc, "Extended Album Versions and Outtakes (Live at Ascot Sound Studios," a sneaking feeling sets in that perhaps some of these alternates may not demand extensive re-listening over time. The sheer volume are alternates is almost overwhelming (though additional takes on "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier" continue to prove intriguing, despite my earlier assertion that the lyrics are too bland for comment). As a document of the creation of Imagine, the fourth disc sums the recording process up quite effectively—each song is presented as a montage of edited-together demos, practice jams, discussion among Lennon and the musicians, and alternate takes—all geared toward delivering an audio "story" of the creation of each song.

Want more? The set includes two Blu-ray discs that feature a wealth of audio material. The album is presented as a 5.1 mix that essentially surrounds the listener with Lennon and his band, enveloping he/she in the audio experience. This includes the bonus tracks. Also in 5.1 are 16 of the outtakes. The album was released in 1971 as a Quadsonic mix, and that 4.0 audio is presented on Blu-ray as well.

The second Blu-ray disc ("In the Studio and Deeper Listening") is probably destined to emerge as an enduring fan favorite, offering new 5.1 mixes of additional outtakes and elements mixes (some of which are not found on the CDs; "How?" takes 7-10 for example). Also, here on Blu-ray the "Evolution Documentary" is expanded to go beyond the album's ten tunes, including audio montages of the additional five bonus tracks ("Power to the People," "Well... (Baby Please Don't Go)", "God Save Us/Oz," "Do the Oz," "Happy Xmas (War is Over." There are also audio interviews conducted by broadcaster and Lennon family friend Elliot Mintz.

My only gripe is that I dislike when audio is exclusively presented on Blu-ray, not found on the CDs. Obviously the 5.1 and 4.0 Quadsonic mixes need to the multi-channel capability of Blu-ray. But I'm not sure why they would leave additional takes, mixes, or "Evolution Documentary" pieces off the CDs. I can't be alone in the feeling that listening to music on Blu-ray is not exactly convenient, therefore not likely to happen as often as listening to CD (or digital files).

There's also an extensive hardcover book loaded with photos, lyrics, musician credits, commentary by Lennon, Yoko Ono, producer Phil Spector, and the principal participants in this 2018 reissue. It adds up to a staggering, exhaustive document that should be at (or at least near) the top of every Beatlefan's holiday wish list. And in addition to that single disc remaster/remix, there's also a two-disc that contains a healthy sampling of the box set's outtakes.
Imagine Ultimate #2.jpg

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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