Well, this has been a long time coming. Presumably it was delayed by the pandemic, so here it finally is, a year late (well, nine months), and available in a bewildering range of packages designed to milk money from the vinyl collectors and the completists, of which I am neither.
I do understand the appeal of vinyl, of course I do, I’m not a monster. But I’m also not a person who wants to collect stuff that sits on shelves and takes up space. I got rid of my vinyl over 20 years ago and I’m not a recidivist: I’ve ended up completely embracing the digital download, and I’m quite happy listening to the Hi-Res Apple Lossless version now that Apple Lossless is a thing. I’d even do the Dobly thing (“Has it got a Dobly?”), though I don’t really have the equipment. Does a cheap pair of noise cancelling headphones count?
And the thing about vinyl, as I said on Twitter, is that it doesn’t seem like a real obsession to me unless accompanied by the obsession over stereo cartridges, stylus quality, pre-amps and other hi-fi componentry. Without all that, it’s just a simulacrum of a vinyl habit. If it’s just unboxing videos, include me out. I’m more wifi than hifi, and happy not to be obsessively cleaning vinyl with an anti-static cloth.
So here we are. Let’s talk about the 5-disc Deluxe edition: 70 songs, 4 hours 25 minutes 3.25 gigabytes worth. Yes, your Apple Lossless version of My Sweet Lord is just over 61MB, and we are a long way from the Fraunhofer Society and their compressed audio formats of 1993. We live in extraordinary times.
A word on the 2020 remixes. Do they sound better? Me and my 58 year old ears are not best placed to be able to tell. I’ve tried A-B comparisons to my (2000) 30th anniversary edition CD, and it does sound a bit different. More low end, definitely, and a little less bright, and George’s voice is not quite so buried in the mix. The original album was “produced” by notorious murderer Phil Spector, and it has been de-Spectorised to an extent. It sounds a little less messy than the murder mixes. But it is still a bit messy, because George’s point scoring in 1970 was all about the sheer number of people who wanted to work with him: because a lot of the time one of the four people in George’s previous band couldn’t be arsed to work on his songs. So a lot of the songs are too busy, too murdery, and this is not the non-murdery version of the album you might have been hoping for, of which more below the below.
As to the material, I’m not a fan of dreary George, and the songs that have aged best for me are the ones where he has remembered the lessons of Nashville Skyline and The Band. In other words, the shorter, simpler songs, with a country feel.
So we’ll leave the remixing and sound quality aside with the comment that it sounds a bit better, and probably less wearing on the ears over the 1 hour 45 minutes of the original running time.
My final comment on the original: I understand why the jams are there, I do, but I’m not remotely interested in them. I was more keen to skip to the other discs, which have demos and outtakes. Disc 3 is Day 1 demos: 15 of them, which is an impressive level of productivity. Disc 4 has another 15 demos from Day 2, and Disc 5 has a variety of session outtakes and jams.
All of these are very interesting, and you can’t help hearing something that might have been better than what ended up on the original triple album. For example, one of the songs George wrote with Bob Dylan, “If Not For You” has always sounded a bit clunky to me, especially compared with Dylan’s version on New Morning. But George’s original demo (Disc 4) and his full-band rehearsal (Disc 5) sounds miles better than what he ended up with. It’s pacier, tighter, and sweeter sounding all around.
One of my favourite George songs is “What is Life”, which does sound better in its 2020 mix, but also much much better in the Disc 5 session outtake. For sure, George’s voice sounds a bit strained and off key, but it just sounds better without the horns and you can hear him properly.
There are gems like this throughout, and you might end up with an alternative version of the album as a playlist, which will be fully de-Spectorised. In other words, if you’ve got the patience, you can create a new, non-murdery version of All Things Must Pass.
The last items of interest are his joky Let it Be style play-throughs of old songs (like “Wedding Bells”), which include a snippet of George doing “Get Back“, which makes you wonder. The tape starts half-way through (or does it?), so you don’t know what led up to it.
George’s humour comes through on the other discs, which is great, and overall I feel like this is a very rich collection, containing much more than the usual boxed set play-once-and-forget material. This is a document that reveals what an incredibly fertile and productive set of sessions these were, and how fabulous it is to hear new George material after so long.