Rock N Roll Ghosts: New Mixes of Old Albums

Pink Floyd, the Replacements and R.E.M. all attempt to rewrite history

Look closely at many of the big box sets released during the waning months of 2019 and a trend emerges: many bands are itching at the chance to rewrite their history by revising albums they released decades ago. Over the last few weeks, the Replacements, R.E.M. and Pink Floyd have built super deluxe sets anchored on rejiggered versions of old albums from the 1980s and 1990s. Apart from R.E.M.'s 1994 LP Monster, a polarizing, loud rock & roll excursion that has its ardent defenders, these albums aren't exactly beloved. Don't Tell A Soul gave the Replacements their biggest hit in 1989 but at the expense of their wild spirit. A Momentary Lapse Of Reason revived Pink Floyd's commercial fortunes in 1987 yet often felt like a David Gilmour solo album in disguise. 

Each of these albums has been revisited in 2019 with the idea that their central flaw could be fixed. Monster has Peter Buck's tacky phased guitars whittled away to lean riffage in a new mix by its producer Scott Litt. Thanks to a recently-discovered old cassette dub of his first mix of the album, Matt Wallace, the producer of Don't Tell A Soul, has had another bite at the apple, removing the gloss of the released Chris Lord-Alge mix in his re-creation of his original draft. A Momentary Lapse Of Reason has been significantly reworked by producer/engineer Andy Jackson, a veteran of the album's original sessions. Jackson added more parts from keyboardist Rick Wright and labored with Nick Mason so the drummer now played the rhythm tracks on the entire album, all in the hopes that it would feel more like a "classic" Floyd album, a'la 1994's The Division Bell

Jackson summarized the situation succinctly to David Chiu of Forbes: "A Momentary Lapse Of Reason was designed to sound very modern when we did it. The trouble with being up-to-date is that it becomes behind the times after a while." This assessment not only applies to the three albums at hand but any record released at any point in time. Recordings by definition are a document of a moment in time. Sometimes these moments are constructed in the studio, sometimes they're preserved live in front of an audience, but no matter the origin, the recording captures a specific sound that reflects the aesthetic of its time. A radical revision of an existing album is an attempt to wrestle the album away from its cultural history so it can reside within the confined arc of an artists' own body of work. 

It's easy to see why an artist would follow this path. Think of the old canard "no work of art is finished, it is abandoned." If an artist was given the budget and opportunity to modify their mistakes, they'd leap at the opportunity. Such a situation has happened in the past. Iggy Pop spearheaded a reissue of Raw Power that added bass to the razor-thin original David Bowie production, but usually, these tweaks are subtle, along the lines of Giles Martin gently adjusting the mixes of his father's productions for the Beatles so the soundstage feels contemporary. That's not what's happening with these three records. In each case, the albums are positioned as correctives to mixes that were redolent with the trickery and flair that distinguished productions of the 1980s and early 1990s.

The artists aren't the only ones who believe that the recordings of the 1980s sound odd to modern ears. The accepted conventional wisdom is that the '80s productions are slathered in synths, gated drums, and cavernous echo, elements that make it possible to carbon date the sound to the exact month of its release. Sanding away these intrusive elements or burying them in the mix makes it easier to hear the merits of the song or performance, at least in theory. 

Monster lives up to this thesis to an extent. Appearing during the thick of the alt-rock explosion of the 1990s, the album didn't fall prey to the polished aural excesses of the 1990s but the washes of roaring processed guitars did make it appear as a response to grunge upon its original release. Spearheaded by producer Scott Litt, who was more dissatisfied with the original than the band, the new mix is much drier and tighter than the '94 album, and its slight airlessness accentuates the queerness at the heart of Michael Stipe's lyrics. All these themes are apparent on the 1994 version but submerged underneath its thunderous trash--a sound that made it suit the commercial needs of the time but made it seem like a departure for R.E.M. Here, it sounds more of in line with their discography, emphasizing the skeletons of the songs instead of the threads draped upon their bones.

The same sentiment is certainly true with the redux edition of Don't Tell A Soul. Where the original was polished so it gleamed--a gambit at chart success that did pay off, just not to the extent either the band or label would've hoped--this is direct and lean, a record that plays into the mythos of the Replacements. To an extent, it's fan fulfillment--Mats fanatics only want the band when they sound ragged--but the liveliness and the loose ends do feel authentic to what the Replacements were during their heyday. It is also a sound that would've stiffed if released instead of the original: it's too modest, too ramshackle to garner the meager radio play Don't Tell A Soul did back in 1989.

Similarly, A Momentary Lapse Of Reason may not have been as powerful a presence on AOR if it was mixed in this fashion in 1987. Under Jackson's direction, the album has its digital edges softened, its rhythms slightly loosened, the textures opened up so it seems as if it's filling out a cinema screen. It does indeed feel like The Division Bell, playing upon classic Floyd tropes with a warmer, friendlier sheen--one that seeks to console instead of provoking. 

In a way, it's possible to argue that these revisions all intend to comfort, to remold outliers into albums that fit snugly within a discography. They're each offering what many longterm fans want by getting back to the essence of a band. They're effective, even pleasing and the next time I want to listen to the Replacements, I may well put on Don't Tell A Soul Redux. But I suspect that I won't and the reason I think that is how I know for certain that I will put on the original version of A Momentary Lapse Of Reason if I ever have the urge to listen to it again. The 1987 incarnation is gaudy and brittle, capturing Floyd attempting to keep pace with Dire Straits and Phil Collins, striving to be earthbound instead of aiming for the stars. Not only was that Pink Floyd's intent in 1987, but there is also merit to the stiff, stylized digital clang. It may sound out of date but it's more transportive to listen to a production that was once state of the art and has now tarnished slightly. It's the closest thing we have to a musical time machine.