Not Loving the Beatles' 'Love'

It certainly sounded like a bold idea—shockingly brazen, even. Raid the Beatles' master recordings at Abbey Road Studios, break them apart, scramble, mash and reassemble them, and then serve up the result in 5.1 Surround Sound as the score to a Cirque de Soleil show called "Love." To diehard fans it smacked of sacrilege. But the project was endorsed by the two surviving Beatles, as well as Beatles widows Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison. Placed in the care of "fifth Beatle" producer George Martin and his son Giles, "Love" arrived in stores last week dripping with credibility and inviting questions. Would it be the first "new" Beatles album in 40 years? What would a sanctioned Beatles mash-up sound like?

A lot like the original recordings, it turns out. Superfans needn't have worried: "Love" neither adds to nor detracts from the brilliant music four lads from Liverpool recorded nearly a half century ago. It sounds beautiful. But revolutionary—or even particularly interesting—it ain't. The Beatles catalog has never been fully remastered for CD or sold anywhere as online downloads, which may help explain why the gorgeously crisp "Love" debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts and why the album "1" was a monster hit six years ago. As with any new iteration of the "Star Wars" DVD collection, the market for remastered Beatles music is almost weirdly robust.

So too is tolerance for innovation, which makes sense since no one was more innovative than the Beatles and George Martin. But those who come seeking innovation will find that "Love" bites. In 2004, when mash-ups were ascendant, Brian Burton, a.k.a. Danger Mouse , famously mashed the music from the Beatles' eponymous "White Album" with the vocal tracks of rapper Jay-Z's "Black Album." Without their consent, Danger Mouse broke the Beatles' music down to its molecular level and completely reimagined it. It was the freshest take on their songwriting in at least a generation, and music lovers had passionate feelings of all kinds about it. "Love," on the other hand, hovers somewhere between a greatest-hits compilation and a collection of reverential Beatles' covers. Much more the former than the latter, it takes no great risks and offers no great insights other than to remind us for the squillionth time that, gosh, these boys sure could write the hell out of a song.

The record starts with an acapella version of "Because" that sounds largely as it does on "Abbey Road," only gratingly slower and more boring. "Get Back" kicks off with the instantly recognizable first chord of "Hard Day's Night" (how many other songs can you name in one note?) and a drum break from "The End" before launching into a straightforward take on one of the most familiar songs from one of the most familiar catalogs on earth. As far as remixing goes, this is very tentative stuff. Older Beatles fans will probably appreciate the light touch. But most of us will wonder why Martin fils et pere even bothered. Why give us the same old "Eleanor Rigby?" For a lonely lady, she has plenty of fans as she is. Why give us "I am the Walrus" without doing anything radical to it? The song was a crazy patchwork of sound and visuals in 1967, which ought to have inspired the Martins to go positively goo goo ga-joob with it in the studio today. But here it is sounding exactly as it did the first time you heard it. Why bother?

There are some nice moments here. The 80-minute album is sprinkled with segues and snippets of sound that make for fun geeking out, trying to decipher which songs they originally came from. But only one track can truly be considered a mash-up here, a mildly exciting medley that seamlessly slides from "Drive My Car" into "What You're Doing" and "The Word," punched through with the "Savoy Truffle" horn section. But when "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" similarly fades into "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," the trick begins to feel like little more than an exercise in cute beat-matching . "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is a spliced-together version of live and studio recordings. The famously screaming fans in Ed Sullivan's studio fade in and out, hinting to the listener that maybe the Martins never did intend on doing anything other than revering the music they'd been charged with. "Something" is given lovely, lush strings that work better than they do on the other George Harrison track here, a treacly, almost guitar-free "While My Guitar Gently Weeps."

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To be sure, those hoping for true innovation here might have been a bit naive. This is after all, the soundtrack to a popular circus production, more commerce than culture. In an interview with an Australian newspaper, Giles Martin has called "Love" "a sort of live show that never happened." He uses a telling metaphor. "It's like if your girlfriend changes the color of her hair and it makes you fall in love with her again in a whole different way," he says. "We've done that with the Beatles." But if you put a wig on Angelina Jolie, she's still Angelina Jolie—there are some things you just can't improve upon so easily.

Still, "Strawberry Fields Forever" manages to surprise as it gradually morphs from John Lennon's spare acoustic demo into the final studio recording, peppered with elements of "Piggies," "Penny Lane," and "Baby You're a Rich Man," among others. "Lady Madonna" is astonishingly clear, almost as if you're sitting next to Paul McCartney as he barrels his way through it in the studio. "Hey Jude"—one of those songs that should probably just be retired forever—gets a bit of funky face-lift that'll have you "Na Na Na-ing" right along despite yourself. In the end, even moments like these still make you want to turn "Love" off and reach for the original recordings. So maybe John and Paul were wrong. Maybe all you need is ... the complete remastered catalog.