Everyone has their favorite Beatles album. The White Album is mine. Abbey Road is more perfect. Sgt. Pepper is more influential. Revolver was more radical in its time. But The White Album is the most epic.
It has some of my favorite songs, and within its generous 93-minute duration it covers every possible Beatles emotion, from the delicate (“Julia,” “Blackbird”) and the wondrous (“Dear Prudence,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun”) to the hard-rocking (“Revolution 1,” “Helter Skelter”) and the odd (“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”). Even the weakest songs (“Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?,” “Piggies,” “Wild Honey Pie,” “Don’t Pass Me By”) are fun because you can hear John, Paul, George and Ringo expressing their individual personalities with absolute freedom.
My point is, The White Album is a 5-star masterpiece, even while being their most flawed. So what do we do with the new White Album: Super Deluxe edition, put out upon its 50th anniversary?
Unlike the archive projects of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles camp has been exceedingly conservative with what non-album material it has released over the years. With last 2017’s expansive Sgt. Pepper redux and now this 6-disc excavation of The White Album, that seems to be changing.
Discs 1 and 2 feature a 2018 remix of the original album by Giles Martin (son of late Beatles producer George Martin). As with the Sgt. Pepper project, Martin has done a miraculous job tweaking the original mixes to sound new and exciting on modern speakers without adversely changing them. This alone makes the release a worthy addition to your collection.
Disc 3 contains 27 tracks from the mythic Esher Demos, which were recorded at George Harrison’s house prior to the formal studio sessions. These recordings have long been the holy grail to some Beatles fanatics, and while they offer a raw, revealing glimpse of what the band sounds like before all the studio polishing, I find my ears yearning for the finished versions I know and love. The last three discs (which distinguish the Super Deluxe edition from the Standard Deluxe) are a deep dive into the recording sessions, featuring 50 various outtakes, instrumentals, jams and studio dialogue.
Honestly, I don’t know what to do with it all. As the band with the all-time greatest track record for releasing only incredible songs, The Beatles have never sounded more imperfect.
It’s fascinating and at times disappointing. In particular, newly unearthed songs like Harrison’s half-baked “Circles” and Lennon’s obnoxiously repetitive “What’s the New Mary Jane” show why they were left on the editing room floor. Projects like this have naturally opened up debates about how far artists, and their estates, should pull back the curtain on the recordings that were never intended to be shared.
Do I need to hear the instrumental backing track of “Revolution”? Do I want to know why they didn’t use Take 44 of “Long, Long, Long”? For the sake of historical record, I’m all for it getting it out there, but as a listener I honestly don’t know if I want to hear every existing take of a song I love. I now know for certain I don’t need to.
If Apple Records is trying to saturate Beatles fans’ bottomless appetite once and for all, this should do it. Should anyone but the most painfully obsessive Beatles nerd need or want or to hear this? Probably not.