• Thu. May 23rd, 2024

The Beatles, Taylor Swift and More Pop Stars Mess With the Past


Dec 29, 2023


“Now and Then” arrived as part of the latest Beatles reissues: new, expanded, remixed versions of the anthologies known as the Red and Blue albums, “The Beatles/1962-1966” and “The Beatles/1966-1970” (now also designated “The 2023 Edition”). They are the continuation of the Beatles’ longtime efforts to wring every possible product out of their catalog: concept compilations (“Love Songs,” No. 1 hits on “1”), expanded — and illuminating — reissues that include unreleased session tapes, a “naked” mix of “Let It Be,” a megamix for Cirque du Soleil (“Love”).

The Red and Blue albums, originally released in 1973, were many young listeners’ primers on the Beatles: a whirlwind career ruthlessly pared down to what two LPs could hold. The 2023 editions have more songs; they’re now three-LP sets, diluting the canon established by the original compilations. And as with the other painstakingly reworked 21st-century Beatles releases, they fidget with countless sonic details: panning instruments to different places or moving them into the center, separating parts that had been blurred or blended, bringing out new details, crisping things up.

The new mixes offer a contemporary mixture of analytical clarity and arbitrary tweaks. But they don’t entirely trust that the groundbreaking 1960s Beatles already knew what they were doing in the first place — and that their artistic achievement was shaped by how the Beatles dealt with the era’s studio technology, limitations and all. People encountering the songs on streaming services may not notice which version they’re getting: the ones all the Beatles chose to release, or the new ones.

A different kind of reclamation project continued when Taylor Swift released “1989 (Taylor’s Version),” her remake and expansion of her breakthrough pop album from 2014: nearly note-for-note reconstructions of the previously released songs, plus five other songs “from the vault” that she has said didn’t fit the original album. Swift has impeccable personal reasons for the do-over; she does not own the master recordings she made for the Big Machine label, even though the songs are hers. Meanwhile, her latest fans get a chance to experience a “new” Swift album as though it were being released for the first time.

Yet an unimpeachable business statement is different from an artistic one. On “1989” — with the Swedish pop master Max Martin as executive producer — Swift was boldly and indelibly redefining herself. She left behind the country radio format, cranked up the beats and loops and honed her pop concision. The album has a spirit of both discipline and discovery, of kicking old expectations to the curb while flexing new skills.

And that’s something the remake can’t recapture. Instead of a breakthrough, it’s more like an assignment or an exercise, diligently revisiting every instrumental layer and vocal inflection. It’s thoroughly, unblinkingly professional, but the stakes are lower. Time-warp paradoxes start with the first track, “Welcome to New York.” Swift sings, “Everybody here wanted something more/Searching for a sound they hadn’t heard before” — as she rebuilds a sound the entire world has now heard before.


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