John Lennon, ‘Imagine: The Ultimate Collection': Album Review
When Imagine was released in September 1971, John Lennon finally gave Beatles fans the album they wanted.
His first three solo records were recorded and released while the group was still around, but they were experimental noise collages constructed with Yoko Ono that had nothing to do with the Beatles' music (unless you consider "Revolution 9" representative of their work). And 1970's post-breakup John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, as great as it is, was a little too abrasive for folks who still had "Let It Be" and "The Long and Winding Road" ringing in their ears.
Imagine, on the other hand, sounded enough like a Beatles album that it became Lennon's first No. 1 LP as a solo artist. Four and a half decades later, it still sounds like a work made to sate fans who were still reeling from the world's biggest and greatest group splitting up the year before.
The six-disc Imagine - The Ultimate Collection box pulls together stray singles from the era, various mixes and takes, surround sound and the remastered original album for a definitive look at one of the Beatles' most popular solo records. Is it a little too much for casual fans? Sure, but the breadth of the collection gives a pretty thorough portrait of one of the most famous artists on the planet during about nine months of a most crucial year.
The Imagine album is still celebrated today because most of the music sounds as timeless now as it did almost 50 years ago. Its best tracks reflect the span of Lennon's songwriting at the time. Love songs ("Oh Yoko!"), peace anthems ("Imagine"), protest numbers ("Gimme Some Truth") and bits of self-searching ("Jealous Guy") are heard throughout. And two of his greatest non-album singles from the period -- "Power to the People" and "Happy Xmas (War Is Over)" -- are included on The Ultimate Collection.
They put the entire era in perspective, as do the set's other extras, which lean more toward intriguing instrument- and vocal-stripping mixes and alternate versions that chart the tracks' evolution than cultural-shifting revelations. Even Lennon's early demo of the title song sounds mostly formed here. But they all sound linked in a way, whether he's supporting an underground magazine slapped with an obscenity charge on the single "God Save Oz" or knocking Paul McCartney on the Imagine album track "How Do You Sleep?"
If anything, all of the extended album versions and outtakes reveal just how committed Lennon was to the project. He famously exorcised some personal demons on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and was still fighting other issues when work began on Imagine in February 1971.
As various takes play out, none all that drastically different from the released versions, Lennon and the band -- which included Nicky Hopkins, Klaus Voormann, Alan White and George Harrison -- piece together the songs with steadfast focus. (Compare these sessions with the ones he made with Imagine producer Phil Spector a couple years later that chaotically ended with Spector running off with the tapes.) Lennon wouldn't sound this centered on record again until 1980's Double Fantasy.
Even the rawer extended takes are more disciplined than what you'd expect from these rougher versions. The singing is a little more frayed at times and the playing is just a bit less polished, but everything falls into place as it should. It's like the direct opposite of the primal scream-inspired Plastic Ono Band, which may have been the point all along. (The fourth CD's documentary-like mix of studio chatter, rehearsals and songs is pretty much for completists only; likewise, the Blu-ray audio discs have a specific, and somewhat niche, appeal too.)
Like the Beatles' 2017 Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: Anniversary Edition box, Imagine - The Ultimate Collection charts the evolution of a classic album through repetition and fly-on-the-wall detail. It's not for everyone. It's probably not even the top candidate for this sort of probing (the cathartic John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, his best album, would likely yield more interesting results as Lennon fought his demons in the studio). But it's an occasionally fascinating journey into the creative process of one of the twentieth century's greatest artists as he worked his way toward some peace.