If boiled down to a simple synopsis, the Beatles' LOVE sounds radical: assisted by his father, the legendary Beatles producer George, Giles Martin has assembled a remix album where familiar Fab Four tunes aren't just refurbished, they're given the mash-up treatment, meaning different versions of different songs are pasted together to create a new track. Ever since the turn of the century, mash-ups were in vogue in the underground, as such cut-n-paste jobs as Freelance Hellraiser's "Stroke of Genius" -- which paired up the Strokes' "Last Night" with Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" -- circulated on the net, but no major group issued their own mash-up mastermix until LOVE in November 2006. Put in those terms, it seems like LOVE is a grand experiment, a piece of art for art's sake, but that's hardly the case. Its genesis lies with the Beatles agreeing to collaborate with performance dance troupe Cirque du Soleil on a project that evolved into the Las Vegas stage show LOVE, an extravaganza that cost well over 100 million dollars and was designed to generate revenue far exceeding that. During pre-production, all involved realized that the original Beatles tapes needed to be remastered in order to sound impressive by modern standards when pumped through the huge new theater -- the theater made just with this dance revue in mind -- and since they needed to be tweaked, they might as well use the opportunity to do something different with the familiar music, too: to remix and re-imagine it, to make LOVE be something unique to both the Beatles and Cirque du Soleil.
Keep in mind the Cirque du Soleil portion of the equation: George and Giles Martin may have been given free reign to recontextualize the Beatles' catalog, but given that this was for a project that cost hundreds of millions of dollars this wasn't quite the second coming of The Grey Album, where Danger Mouse surreptitiously mashed up The White Album with Jay-Z's The Black Album. This isn't an art project and it isn't underground, either: it's a big, splashy commercial endeavor, one that needs to surprise millions of Beatles fans without alienating them, since the mission is to please fans whether they're hearing this in the theater or at home. And so, the curious LOVE, a purported re-imagining of the most familiar catalog in pop music, winds up being less interesting or surprising than its description would suggest.
Neither an embarrassment or a revelation, LOVE is at first mildly odd but its novelty soon recedes, revealing that these are the same songs that know you by heart, only with louder drums and occasionally with a few parts in different places. Often, what's presented here isn't far afield from the original recording: strip "Because" down to its vocals and it still sounds very much like the "Because" on Abbey Road -- and that arrangement is actually one of the more drastic here. Whether they're songs as spare and stark as "Eleanor Rigby" or "Yesterday," as trippy as "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" or as basic as "Get Back," the songs remain the same, as do most of the arrangements, right down to the laughter and sound effects sprinkled throughout "I Am the Walrus." There's only one cut that has the thrilling unpredictability of a genuine mash-up and that's a cut that blends together "Drive My Car," "The Word" and "What You're Doing," punctuated with horns from "Savoy Truffle"; a chorus from one song flows into the verse from another, as keyboards and percussion from all three, plus more, come together to make something that's giddy, inventive and fresh. But that's the exception to the rule, since most of this delivers juxtapositions that seem obvious based on the concept of the project itself: it doesn't take a great leap of imagination to set the melody of "Within You Without You" to the backing track of "Tomorrow Never Knows," since both derive from the same psychedelic era and share similar themes.
Throughout LOVE, songs are augmented by samples from roughly the same phase in the Beatles career, so "Strawberry Fields Forever" is enhanced by "Penny Lane," "Hello Goodbye," "Piggies" and "In My Life," but not "There's a Place," "It Won't Be Long," or "I Feel Fine," selections that could have been truly startling. It also would have been startling if those snippets of "Penny Lane" and "Hello Goodbye" were threaded within "Strawberry Fields," in a fashion similar to "Drive My Car/The Word/What You're Doing," but they're added to the end of the song, a move that's typical of the Martins' work here. With a few exceptions scattered throughout the record, all the mash-ups are saved for the very end of the song, which has the effect of preserving the feel of the original song while drawing attention to the showiest parts of the Martins' new mixes, giving the illusion that they've changed things around more than they actually have.
Not that the Martins simply add things to the original recordings; that may be the bulk of their work here, but they do subtly change things on occasion. Most notably, they structure "Strawberry Fields" as a progression from the original demo to the finished single version (a move that is, admittedly, borrowed from Anthology 2) and they've used an alternate demo take of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," to which George Martin has written a sympathetic new string arrangement. It also has to be said that the craft behind LOVE is impeccable: it flows as elegantly as the second side of Abbey Road, which is an achievement of no small measure. But there lies the rub: even if LOVE elicits a certain admiration for how Giles and George have crafted their mash-ups, it elicits a greater admiration for the original productions and arrangements, which display far more imagination and audacity than the mixes here. Take a song as seemingly straightforward as "Lady Madonna," a Fats Domino tribute so good the man himself recorded it. This mix highlights weird flourishes like the carnival-esque vocal harmonies of the bridge -- things that were so densely interwoven into the original single mix that they didn't stand out -- but by isolating them here and inserting them at the front of the song, the Martins lessen the dramatic impact of these harmonies, just like how the gut-level force of McCartney's heavy, heavy bass here is tamed by how it's buried in the mix. The original has an arrangement that builds where this gets to the good part immediately, then stays there, a problem that plagues all of LOVE.
Here, the arrangements have everything pushed up toward the front, creating a Wall of Sound upon which certain individual parts or samples can stand out in how they contrast to the rest. This means that LOVE can indeed sound good -- particularly in a 5.1 surround mix as elements swirl between the front and back speakers, but these are all window-dressing on songs that retain all their identifiable elements from the original recordings. And that's the frustrating thing about this entire project: far from being a bold reinvention, a Beatles album for the 21st century, the Martins didn't go far enough in their mash-ups, creating new music out of old, turning it into something mind-blowing. But when there's a multi-multi-million dollar production at stake, creating something truly mind-blowing is not really the goal: offering the familiar dressed up as something new is, and that's what LOVE delivers with big-budget style and flair, and more than a touch of Vegas gaudiness. It's an extravaganza, bright and colorful and relentless in its quest to entertain but beneath all the bluster, LOVE isn't much more than nostalgia masquerading as something new. ~ Stephen Thomas Erlewine