If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a hundred times. You’ve probably heard it so much that you can anticipate the notes of forthcoming songs before you hear them. It’s so ubiquitous that The Onion ran a satirical article claiming a college had banned the album from its campus. In my own college experience, it didn’t grow as tiresome as Steve Miller’s Greatest Hits (which got played at every party I went to), but, lord, it got played a lot. I swear to you, even as I write this, the pizza parlor I’m sitting in is playing it of their own free will.
If someone’s collection features only one reggae album, Legend is usually the one. It’s sold over 10 million copies, spending over 10 years on the Billboard catalog charts, and still sells around 10,000 copies a week. That’s all well and good. Marley was an intensely talented performer, and his blend of spiritual optimism and political unease took reggae to rare commercial and artistic heights.
That still raises the question of why Legend is so hugely successful, so inescapable. The quality of Marley’s music is undeniable, but even by the standards of greatest hits packages, which allow listeners safe, market-tested entry into an artist’s catalog, Legend is an anomaly. A justifiably optimistic view might contend that Marley’s music is of sufficient quality that the cream naturally rises to the top, and it’s simply a case of the public latching onto something good. A more cynical perspective might argue that Legend is a watered-down view of Marley, stripped of the troubling social, political, and economic forces that birthed his music.
That last point of view might seem especially appropriate now, as Marley’s catalog enjoys a remastered, repackaged, bonus-tracked renaissance. It’s the perfect chance for folks to dig deeper into Marley’s output, which chronicles his adoption of the Rastafari faith even as his homeland succumbed to turmoil. Exodus, an album featured prominently in Legend‘s song selection, was recorded on the heels of an assassination attempt on Marley’s life which made him flee to London. You don’t get much sense of that from Legend, though, which raises another issue (or maybe even strength) inherent in the album. Legend promotes the positive, transcendent spirituality of Marley, and there’s little sense that anything bad ever happened in his worldview. Does it shortchange Marley that an entire facet of his personality gets shortchanged, or is it enough that, even stripped of context, Marley’s music has such a profound effect?
Legend‘s status as a posthumous release makes the issue even murkier. Greatest hits packages are most often chart-driven dissections of an artist’s career, but they’re also opportunities for artists to cast a light on certain aspects of their careers. The posthumous release too often shows the attitudes of those close to the artists, but perhaps not the artist himself. The fussin’ and feudin’ behind the recent Nirvana compilation are well-documented, and depending on which part of the yard you sit in, the disc is either 1) a cash cow riding on the coat-tails of “You Know You’re Right”, 2) a valid encapsulation of Kurt Cobain’s legacy, or 3) an 11th hour compromise between two disparate camps that appeases both to some degree, but which truly satisfies neither. I doubt that the birth of Legend was so tumultuous—likely, it was an unassuming little compilation that took on a life of its own. But much of the fire that characterized Marley’s life does get lost in favor of an admittedly valid spiritual perspective.
As much as it exists to introduce listeners to Marley’s music, Legend also exists as an epitaph, and those are always colored as much by the needs of the survivors as it is by the life of the deceased. Legend paints a portrait of a gentle life cut down in its prime, and perhaps that’s really all that it should do. The recent two-disc expanded reissue of Legend was a weak bit of travesty, especially in light of the wondrous Marley reissues that came before it. Little, especially remixes, could improve upon the disc’s near perfection. And to plug in six or seven songs full of tumult would have started Legend down the road to being an entirely different compilation.
As for the collection we have now? Despite all this pondering, the inevitable conclusion is that Legend is a damn fine collection, context or no. On top of that, this remastering is so good that you have to convince yourself that alternate mixes didn’t accidentally make it onto the disc. The clarity in some spots is so stunning that these sound like new songs, no matter how many times you’ve heard them. True, there are a couple of bonus cuts, but these were on the UK cassette version of Legend when it first came out—no real revelations there. Thankfully, no one set out to reinvent the wheel when it was time to push the spiffed-up new Legend out the gate, and that probably befits this legend most. It’s an excellent collection, which is no great secret; just take comfort that it’ll still be around when you wear your current copy out.