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Review: The Beatles' "Let It Be" box set

Is it the sound of the band breaking up or The Beatles as nature intended?
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THE BEATLES

Let It Be (Super Deluxe Edition)

UMe (4-LP/1-EP + 1 Blu-ray bset)

5 Stars

It’s certainly a splendid time to be a Beatles fan: not only has the remixed, remastered and expanded Let it Be album (in its various iterations) been unleashed, but with the epic Get Back film (or is it a miniseries?) currently streaming on Disney+, the lavish companion book of the same title hitting the shelves (along with Paul McCartney’s career-spanning The Lyrics), well…it’s seemingly all Beatles, all the time. And, to coin a phrase, you know that can’t be bad.

For the purposes of this review, we’ll concentrate on the Let it Be super deluxe box set, which can be seen as something of an aural sidekick to the nearly 8-hour Get Back film. The box includes five CDs—or four LPs with a 4-song EP—featuring a remix of the original album, outtakes, rehearsals, loosely formed jams, the complete “Glyn Johns Mix” from 1969 (basically an alternate version of the full-length record), and a few new and unreleased mixes of tracks from the sessions. (The CD version also contains a sixth disc with Blu-Ray audio only.) All told, it’s a solid overview of what the Fab Four were up to musically in January 1969, although more bits and pieces of tunes that showed up in Get Back (such as the sadly unfinished John Lennon composition, “Madman”) would have been welcomed.

As with the Sgt. Pepper, White Album and Abbey Road reissues, Giles Martin helms the remixing of the original 12-track album here and continues his deft balancing act of remaining true to the original tracks while upping the overall clarity and bringing certain bits to the fore that previously may have been less than obvious. Under Martin’s guidance, Lennon’s “Across the Universe” now sounds more spacious and beautiful, “Let it Be” is particularly crisp (especially Paul McCartney’s vocals), and “Get Back” also gains noticeable clarity in the lead vocal. The heavenly choir in “The Long and Winding Road”—historically a sore spot for McCartney after “re-producer” Phil Spector added it prior to the album’s original 1970 release—is now substantially subdued, providing a nice mid-point between the original track and 2003’s Let it Be…Naked version. The bass and drums seem to have a greater presence throughout, similar to Martin’s previous remixes. Slight annoyance: McCartney’s keyboard solo on George Harrison’s “For You Blue” seems more audibly distorted than ever before.

Disc two is subtitled Get Back – Apple Sessions, and contains 14 tracks: alternate takes, interstitial spoken word asides (titled “speeches”) that provide a touch of context to the proceedings, and more. “The Long and Winding Road (Take 19)” sounds pure and lovely and may be the definitive version of the tune, while Lennon hilariously spoofs Bob Dylan by exaggeratingly aping Zimmerman’s vocal stylings on “Two of Us (Take 4)” and the lads sound like they’re having a ball goofing their way through a brief medley (of sorts) of “Maggie Mae” and “Fancy My Chances with You.”

The third disc—Rehearsals and Apple Jams—features early run-throughs of some material that would show up on Abbey Road, as well as a few eventual solo nuggets: Lennon’s “Gimme Some Truth” (which shows that McCartney may have had a hand in its composition) and Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” Interestingly, the rehearsal take of “I Me Mine” contains some guitar riffing that sounds very similar to what would appear on Harrison’s 1971 single, “Bangla Desh.” Several of the tracks on discs 2, 3 and 4 have previously shown up on various bootlegs over the years but are now presented in superior fidelity. (The aforementioned Let it Be…Naked also contains portions of some of this material, as does the Anthology 3 compilation.)

The “1969 Glyn Johns Mix” fills disc four and while there are some interesting selections and fun banter, it’s easy to see why the Beatles didn’t want this version of the album released at the time: it’s a “warts and all” sort of thing and at times those warts are rather large and ugly, with some of the songs obviously far from completed. McCartney’s “Teddy Boy” sounds less than half-baked (although Lennon’s mock square dance calls are hilarious), four minutes of the annoyingly circular “Dig It” is about three minutes too many, and the snippet of “Save the Last Dance for Me” is horribly turgid. Some of the alternate versions of the original LP’s songs provide interesting listening, though: “One After 909” features McCartney’s vocals hard panned to the left with Lennon’s on the right, for example, and the alternate “I’ve Got a Feeling” is loose and fun.

Disc five is a newly created Let it Be EP, which contains only four songs: two unreleased Glyn Johns mixes from 1970 (“Across the Universe” and “I Me Mine”) and two brand new mixes of the original single versions of “Don’t Let Me Down” and “Let it Be.” “Universe” is more acoustic guitar-heavy than previous versions and sounds wonderful, while the two new mixes sound stunningly clear and bright (and in the case of “Let it Be,” scrubbed of most all the pesky echo and “un-Spectorized”).

Although Let it Be has historically received a bad rap as being relatively uninspired (for the Beatles, anyway) and “the sound of the band breaking up,” the new box set goes a long way toward dispelling that myth. The Beatles sound like they’re having a good time more often than not, and several of the tunes gain new traction from the various bits of tweaking they’ve received. As with the previous box set collections, Let it Be is essential listening for any Beatles fan.