Where posthumous releases from rock legends are concerned, quality control becomes a moot issue. The presumption is that hardcore fans want (deserve?) to hear as many outtakes, live recordings, and curiosities as the object of their affection committed to tape. So it was inevitable that the Lennon archive would eventually belch forth its own white elephant. The good news is this four-CD box compiled by Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, isn’t entirely a collection of dressed-up barrel scrapings. It’s conceptually solid, documenting Lennon’s post-Beatles career beginning with the seminal Plastic Ono Band album and continuing on through the “Double Fantasy”/”Milk and Honey” sessions, offering surprising incarnations of familiar songs (“Hold On” as a subdued rockabilly rave-up, “Imagine” embellished with a harmonium).
In truth, none of the alternate versions best their studio counterparts, but such criticism may be beside the point. This is for true believers, students of marginalia and nuance, and anyway, some of the best moments are the most ephemeral: Lennon and Phil Spector engaging in some testy studio banter, a seemingly extemporaneous Dylan spoof, a home recording of young Sean Lennon singing “With a Little Help From My Friends” (whose title temporarily escapes Papa John). The set also confirms that the oldies dating from the “Rock & Roll” period were as turgid as we remember them, and that Elephant’s Memory (Lennon’s backing band circa ’72) weren’t quite as horrible as some have maintained. Of course, anyone who worships at the altar of Saint John will have to own this regardless; less reverent sorts can get by on Lennon’s existing oeuvre quite nicely.