The Last Temptation of the Completist

Zeth Lundy

As record companies empty their vaults and bring forth an unending supply of alternates, remixes and studio-session outtakes, even the most definitive pop masterpieces can seem provisional. But as our curiosity about these works gets sated, is our pleasure in their greatness diminished?

PopMatters Music Columns Editor

Does Smile really exist?
--David Leaf, liner notes to 2004 Nonesuch release of SMiLE

Pop music was once bigger than itself, a labyrinthian world with self-made pockets of myths and mysteries. Pop was more than just music; equally important to its magnetic allure were the legends its music spawned, mythical footnotes that accompanied the albums we heard and, at times, withheld the albums we didn't hear. Unreleased studio outtakes were mythologized: the greatest single that never was; the lost record, conceptualized but never realized. Live concerts became bloated depictions of lore, disseminated through the bootleg trading underworld and canonized in exaggerated halls of fame.

But gradually, systematically, pop's longstanding mythology is being debunked and demystified, thanks to a combination of technological advances and general human curiosity. Older works, thought to be lost like ashes of the ages, are being reworked; expanded reissues of classic albums offer outtakes on bonus discs. The missing pieces of pop's puzzle are being reassembled. Riddles are being solved for us, one by one, whether we like it or not. But what if we don't want the puzzle completed with in such a definitive manner? What if we want to plug the gaps ourselves, with the bits and pieces we've struggled to collect? Being offered a glimpse behind the fabled curtain is one of the last temptations of the completist, but how does it ultimately impact our perception of the original albums? Do we ignore the meddling (and weather its temptation) or embrace it, and have the element of mystery drained from how we personally experience music?

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The Beach Boys' SMiLE was once an unfinished masterpiece, a zenith of the exploding consciousness of the 1960s. Problem was, it was never released. You could assemble a makeshift version of the record by consulting provisional blueprints and pulling tracks from the substitute LP Smiley Smile and various bootlegs to create a musical Frankenstein, yet even the most diligent of efforts could never recreate Brian Wilson's exact vision. SMiLE's appeal was twofold: It was rumored to be one of pop's then-greatest conceptions, and you couldn't have it. Its status as a musical holy grail would remain uncontested for close to four decades, precisely because it remained such a mystery.

In 2004, Wilson rerecorded SMiLE with his touring band, and it was released to universal acclaim. The romanticists of pop crit finally had their long-lost Beatrice and fans of Wilson had their beloved songwriter back after years of sub-par efforts. But regardless of the merits of this new version, rerecording SMiLE and releasing that new interpretation as the official version raises a few concerns. First, the album immediately loses its near-fantastical rank as a thing of legend. Hypotheses and debates are no longer applicable. The album's structure, style, and track list are set in stone. SMiLE becomes just another album, another name on the upcoming release roster, another commodity for the label to market and profit from. (In fact, Nonesuch Records' promotional campaign liberally made reference to the album's mythical standing.) Second, there's a disguised authoritarianism in issuing an "official" version. The Nonesuch release is meant to trump all cobbled-together bootlegs: an undeniable fact replacing all speculative fictions. In turn, SMiLE fans are altered from collectors to consumers.

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A slightly different topic is the blossoming trend of expanded, or deluxe, reissues. An extreme example of the music business giving the customer everything it wants, expanded reissues fill in the gaps and reevaluate contexts by offering a wealth of outtakes, demo versions, and live tracks. Such "appendixes", often crammed in an all-you-can-eat bonus disc, often support a previously released album -- in other words, these are tracks that serve to embellish a particular release, not replace it.

Some reissues offer "alternate realities" that directly contradict the original release. The two-disc Rhino editions of Elvis Costello's Punch the Clock and Goodbye Cruel World include acoustic demo tracks of nearly every album song. These two particular records (often singled out as two of Costello's worst) were mired in glossy, dated '80s production indulgences; hearing the songs delivered untainted allows us to reexamine them with all prejudices expunged. The effect these alternate versions have on us can vary: We can learn to appreciate the original albums more than we ever thought we could, we can finally see the albums for what they really were -- collections of decent songs with poor execution, or we simply loathe the albums more intensely than before as impeachable bastardizations of relatively good intentions.

The Beatles' Anthology collections offer similar what-if excursions into one of the most esteemed pop catalogs of the 20th Century. Before the release of the Anthology series, the easiest way to trace a particular song's evolution was through Mark Lewisohn's invaluable book The Beatles Recording Sessions (or, if you were lucky, via bootlegs of the recording sessions). But ultimately, beyond studio-log transcriptions and passed-down stories, the realities upon which the Beatles myth was built were kept hidden from the public at large. The Anthology discs deflated the band's paramount stature by offering less-definitive versions of now-classic songs. Go into any record store and you have a choice in how you receive the history of the Beatles: for instance, the Rubber Soul version of "I'm Looking Through You" or the funked-up alternate take presented on Anthology 2.

Though the former is arguably superior to the latter, the commercial availability of a choice isn't as innocent as it may initially seem. After hearing the alternate take, we can no longer respond to the original version in the same way. We'll always be able to use that alternate take to point out what the band did right, what it did wrong; however, we can never again listen to the Rubber Soul version as a singular entity, free of any tangentially related baggage. In a sense, the Beatles were, for the first time in front of a commercial worldwide audience, demythologized. Like any other band before or after their time, the Beatles wrote some bum tunes and recorded take after lackluster take. Perhaps we were aware of this all along, somewhere in the backs of our minds, but the Anthology series turned ignorable suspicion into hard proof.

If we open up our scope to include jazz music, Miles Davis's In a Silent Way is also worth considering. In less complicated days, when vaults remained sealed and tricks of the trade were unexposed, all we had was what the artist and record company intended -- in the case of Davis's proto-fusion landmark, a four-song, two-track, 38-minute record, strategically spliced together by producer Teo Macero from extended studio jams. The artful, deliberate construct of In a Silent Way, how it was whittled, without our involvement or explicit knowledge, from expansive recording sessions to a concise statement, was in part what made the album so revolutionary.

With the release of The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions box set in 2001, we were suddenly able to assemble the genesis of the official album within a greater context: three discs of exploratory origins that serve as supporting texts to the album's edited master vision. The meaning of the album is given greater weight, Macero's artistry is made all the more impressive -- still, we face a quandary. Is it better to intimately know the album itself, the story of its creation a speculative matter that contributes to its mythical power, or is it preferable to have your perception of the album altered forever by accessing the sessions from which it was born? Whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, subjecting ourselves to an artifact like The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions permanently alters how we experience the original record. By consulting the box set, we're privy to previously hidden information: which section was hijacked from which jam, which bar was altered to serve the album's direction, which improvisation was modified to fashion a phantom head. Knowing these facts makes In a Silent Way seem less ineffable, less sui generis. Is this information we want?

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Technology is a perpetual scapegoat for societal ills, often favored by grumpy humbugs with an allergic reaction to change. Sometimes, however, the anti-progressives are right. Technology has greatly increased music's accessibility, turning our computers into musical beachcombers. The BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol has become an online staple for fans to trade files of live concerts. What was once a regular-mail ritual of obsession, patience, and ingenuity has now become an everyday practice for the legions of curious and fanatical alike. The online music trading community is as impulsive and flooded as the mass commercial market. The terms "elusive" and "unattainable" no longer apply in the 21st century's accessibility overload. These "tapes" have ceased to be the property of some crafty traders-by-mail; they're now everyone's artifacts.

Concert recordings are, by their very nature, unique texts that, for a distinct percentage of the music-consuming population, provide a myriad of angles into favored icons. Tape traders can collect numerous documents of a band's single tour -- recordings from St. Louis, Dallas, Los Angeles, Seattle -- and find something interesting within each one, whether it be an alteration to the set list or the way a musician played on a particular night. This obsessive detailing of live documentation inevitably leads to fish tales: concerts amass legendary reputations from the repeated perpetuation of myths. A music purist or idealist, naïvely convinced of a particular concert's transcendence, can have his fabled expectations ruined whenever he has a few hours to kill online. The concert recording is downloaded, and the fan is instantly confronted with the ordinary performance that beget a deified snowball.

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So what's the problem? Why should the availability of more music by our favorite artists be cause for some concern? So much is available to us now that we're overloaded with extraneous options. We're encouraged to compare and contrast, to trace progressions and lineages, to trade our personal hypotheses in for definitive truths. How we absorb and process music has been compromised in the name of accessibility; the glut of information is like a rash of legal paperwork confirming our long goodbye to less enlightened days. And ultimately, unless we can defeat curiosity and remain willfully ignorant, we run the risk of reducing our pure pleasure to a plague of revisionist possibilities.

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