Imagine – The Ultimate Collection, the new super deluxe boxed set (which comes out this week) delivers a remixed version of John Lennon’s original 1971 hit album plus a wealth of outtakes, alternates, demos and other studio tidbits to give the listener an intimate snapshot of how this legendary album was created. Spread across four standard compact discs, you also get two Blu-ray Discs containing all this material in high resolution, 96 kHz, 24-bit Stereo, 5.1 surround sound and original four-channel “Quadrasonic” mixes. You also get a lovely hardcover book which dives deep down into the studio sessions which created this album. This is a really fabulous set that has been lovingly assembled with remarkable attention to detail.
Sonics wise, this collection sparkles. The new mixes are faithful to the flavor of the original album but judiciously use the opportunity to clarify detail. For example, they point out in the liner notes that “Gimme Some Truth” was treated with a “generous amount of echo, a Phil Spector characteristic” before they go on to explain that “the new Ultimate Mix by Paul Hicks is a little cooler to sharpen the bite of this angry rocker.”
The producers went back to the original analog multi-track tapes for the transfers into the digital domain, so everything you are hearing on this collection is now in first generation high fidelity — portions of the music are no longer copied (aka “bumped down”) to other tracks as “sub mixes” (and in the analog realm, with every bump, sound quality is lost). The original strings were mixed in Mono but now they are in Stereo (or Surround Sound!) so that lends greater clarity to the recording while making sure that Lennon’s vocals remain the center of attention.
That Imagine still sounds as fresh and timeless as it does on — nearly 50 years since its creation — is a testament to the Yin-Yang focus of album’s producers (John and Yoko plus Phil Spector) who apparently kept each other in check to deliver a Beatle-worthy rock album while representing Lennon’s passionate growth and new directions (strings, dobro, etc.) as a solo artist.
There is so much love and care across this collection, emanating from the original basic tracks outward to the overdubs and the photos and liner notes. The first 10 tracks in each version of the album are presented to the listener in the same running order as the original album (new 2018 remix, 1971 “Quadrasonic,” “Raw,” “Elements” and “Evolution” mixes). We will explore all these areas in the upcoming segments of this review.
The sparkly new 2018 Stereo remix of Imagine sounds really nice. I never had Imagine on CD so I can’t compare it to that but compared to the original LP, it sounds really sweet. 1970s vinyl pressings on Apple Records weren’t always the greatest quality-wise (at least in the US) so there is an improvement there. Comparing the new remix to an original UK pressing this new version fares superbly.
Exploring the title track for an example, the new mix is more direct, with perhaps a bit less reverb on Lennon’s lead vocal. The string section is further back in the old mix than the new yet because its in Stereo now, those elements don’t step on the voice tracks. Lennon’s double-tracked (sounding) piano is a bit more up front and less cloudy so you hear more of the resonance of the piano itself and less of the production effect. Actually, everything on the new mix sounds more focused.
Happily for this listener the new mix on the high resolution Blu-ray Disc is crisp but with none of that unnatural brightness which (for me) hampers many a digital re-think of an older recording. This still sounds like Imagine in 1971.
“Crippled Inside” feels a less boxy in the new mix than the original, perhaps a little less bass-centric than the original, placing a bit more focus and balance on the acoustic and Dobro (slide) guitar textures. There is a lot going on in this little tune! “Give Me Some Truth” sounds brighter than the original, with the cymbal splashes more prominent and kick drum pulse more driving. Compared to the UK vinyl (which sounds pretty great!) it does sound like a level of gauze has been removed from the recording, making Lennon’s vocals jump out of the speakers.
One of my revelations on the new album happened in the end of Side Two closer — “Oh Yoko!” — a song I have always loved. However, I honestly never paid much attention to Alan White’s absolutely mad complex drumming! His kick drum pattern in particular bubbles under in the original LP mix but in the new mix there is a clarity which puts it more in your face and its kinda cool! Just as Lennon’s vocals sound clearer and the acoustic guitar strums brighter, that crazy kick drum perks along like a vintage sports car engine, supporting and elevating the rhythmic pulse of the strummy acoustic guitars. Its pretty neat to hear this so clearly now. Again, it was there on the original vinyl but now its more focused and apparent. A good thing, I think.
A last benefit of the new reissue on a digital format over the original vinyl has to do with off center pressings. Maybe it just the luck of the draw for me, but both of my original vinyl LPs from the UK and the US are a bit off center on Side Two! This isn’t really a big problem until you get towards the end of the side and then on “How?” and “Oh Yoko!” you hear the wavering in the music. So, for that reason alone, having Imagine – The Ultimate Collection in a shiny high resolution Blu-ray Disc presentation is a blessing for this long time vinyl fan. I’ll still keep my old pressings, but I’ll probably listen to this version and the new CD more often.
Speaking of the CDs, I suppose some of you will be wondering how those sound on Imagine – The Ultimate Collection? Well, actually they sound quite good as CDs go, ideal for playing in the car or for casual listening at home. Interestingly, when I just switched from playing the Blu-ray version of the album to the CD, I had the volume on my amplifier up fairly loud, so I did immediately notice a difference in how the music sounded. The CDs deliver some of that crispy digital texture washing over the recording (a texture which annoys my ears, frankly) but its not a deal breaker for me. It just part of the nature of the CD format I suppose. I pick it up mostly on Lennon’s vocals, where it sometimes seems to almost add a bit of sibilance at times, a harsher edge if you will. Its nothing terrible really and actually, and the CD version is overall good sounding, perfectly fine if you are listening in the car or at lower volumes at home.
Ok, so there you have a first peek at the new super deluxe edition of Imagine – The Ultimate Collection. Stay tuned for Part Two where I’ll be exploring the 5.1 surround sound and Quadrasonic mixes within Imagine – The Ultimate Collection! And then in Part Three we’ll look at perhaps my favorite part of the set, the “raw studio” and “evolution” mixes which give you a deep inside look under the skin of Imagine as you might have only… well… imagined!