The Beatles - Let It Be... Naked

Apple/Capitol

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The Beatles - Let It Be... Naked

Let It Be is the orphan of the Beatles’ 13-album canon. It’s the record they couldn’t be bothered to finish, the one fans have argued about for decades.

In January of 1969, the band spent the entire month attempting to realize Paul McCartney’s vision for a live-in-the-studio album, while a film crew documented the proceedings. What the cameras captured was the collective misery of a great band on the brink of dissolution. Apart from a handful of inspired moments—including a thrilling, police-interrupted 42-minute performance on the roof of Apple headquarters—the sessions were unremittingly grim, so the Beatles hastily abandoned the project, soon thereafter beginning work on Abbey Road, their final album. Engineer Glyn Johns twice attempted to salvage the original “warts and all” premise under the working title Get Back, but both versions were rejected by the group. More than a year after the sessions, John Lennon asked Phil Spector to clean up the Get Back material once and for all. Spector’s “re-production,” which involved string and choral arrangements on three tracks, came out as Let It Be in May 1970, eight months after the release of Abbey Road.

The less than definitive circumstances surrounding the as-released Let It Be album left the door open for a reconsideration, and widely circulated bootlegs of Get Back provided further fuel for the argument that the record had never been properly finished. The appearance of the Anthology series and the Yellow Submarine Songtrack in the late ’90s—endeavors that demonstrated it was possible to rework archival material without compromising it or rewriting history—inevitably led the Beatles organization back to the original tapes from which Get Back and Let It Be had been assembled. These tapes would be scrutinized and worked on by the same team of engineers who’d done such a careful job on the preceding archival projects.

Though McCartney’s longstanding dissatisfaction with Let It Be’s original release provided the impetus for reapproaching the material, neither Paul nor fellow surviving Beatle Ringo Starr was involved. The studio team approached the project as if it were an altogether new album—“and therefore there was no reference made to the old album, because there was no point,” co-producer Alan Rouse explained, while his partner Paul Hicks added that the aim was simply “to make it sound as good and raw as possible.”

Let It Be… Naked is a reinterpretation of these 34-year-old recordings, employing modern-day aural conventions. The sound is dry, as opposed to Spector’s heavy use of echo; the stereo spectrum is balanced, unlike the then-common separation of instruments to the left and right; and the spacing between tracks varies according to “feel,” in contrast to the standard three-second gaps of the period. While these adjustments will affect the listener subtly, other aspects will hit the ears of those familiar with the original album far more forcefully.

The first time you hear this new version, you’ll be struck by the absence of the Spectorian strings and chorale on McCartney’s “The Long and Winding Road,” Lennon’s “Across the Universe” and Harrison’s “I Me Mine”; you’ll surely note the disappearance of George Martin’s brass arrangement on “Let It Be,” as well as the replacement of Harrison’s overdubbed guitar solo from the Spector version with the original live-in-the-studio solo; you’ll be thrown off by the dumping of the tag on Paul’s “Get Back,” removed because it had been tacked onto the actual performance in the first place; and you’ll notice that several songs, including “The Long and Winding Road” and “Two of Us,” are quite different, the former because it’s another take altogether and the latter because it combines the two takes from the legendary rooftop performance.

The album has been resequenced as well. It begins with the propulsive, theme-defining “Get Back” (which closes the earlier LP); places “Two of Us” and “I’ve Got a Feeling,” with their disarming Lennon-McCartney vocal interplay, side by side at the center; adds Lennon’s stirring “Don’t Let Me Down,” recorded during the sessions but absent from the original album; and builds to a big finish with “Across the Universe” and “Let It Be.”

Naked is the result of these myriad decisions—decisions record producers make during every project. Did Rouse, Hicks and third partner Guy Massey make better decisions in 2002 than Spector did in 1970? Should the project have been undertaken in the first place? These are the fundamental questions every reviewer of this album has been compelled to answer, so I’ll give it a shot as well: yes and yes.

The experience of music may be largely subjective, but it can hardly be disputed that Naked packs more punch and offers greater clarity than the original LP. The most dramatic improvements are “I’ve Got a Feeling,” which crackles with spontaneous energy, and “Across the Universe,” which brings the extraordinary plaintiveness of Lennon’s vocal and guitar into sharp focus. As a whole, the new version of Let It Be flows beautifully and credibly conveys the feeling of a band in a room—of this band in a room—faithfully honoring McCartney’s original concept. The only serious misstep is the title, which unintentionally sabotages the validity of the undertaking; perhaps they should have called it Just Let It Be. In any case, this is the Let It Be I’ll be listening to from now on.

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