It's curious that posterity has chosen to preserve the mythic half-decade of peace enjoyed by John Lennon between the bacchanalian nostalgia trip Rock 'N' Roll (recorded to avoid a court date with Chuck Berry's publishers) and 1980's Yoko-laden Double Fantasy. Wouldn't it be far less depressing to imagine the ex-Beatle cut down directly before a relapse of image-shattering hubris? Wouldn't it ameliorate the tragedy—if only by, say, the same fraction that "Nutopian National Anthem" occupies Lennon's oeuvre—to consider that Sean and his mother would have been abandoned either way? Well, perhaps, but what we'd surrender in the speculative bargain is the ability to appreciate both Double Fantasy and the posthumous follow-up Milk and Honey on their own terms: And these are, most indelibly, the last will and testament of either a genuinely complacent and contrite domestic partner, or the most wily and accomplished fake the pop world has ever known.
These records are obligatory music that no interpretative drill can dismantle. That said, "required listening" doesn't always make for enthralled listening, and one of the most corroborating exhibits of evidence for Lennon's pre-death emotional stability is Double Fantasy's toothless tone. (Then again, before I impugn the calm too definitively, perhaps I should attempt to exonerate myself from accusations of plagiarism by recording a "roots" album with a scrubs-wearing, heat-packing Phil Spector over my shoulder.) These objections are less aural then they are compositional, in the sense that "tone" denotes an artist's posture toward the material he brings to life. And while gentle or even benign pop, albeit played with unparalleled resonance, has always been part of the Lennon canon (cf. "Girl," "Julia," "Love," "Jealous Guy," and "#9 Dream"), even at age 11, when Double Fantasy was in heavy circulation on family road trips, I noted the yawn-inducing similarities between "Watching the Wheels" and "Imagine." The inside joke I didn't get at the time is that it's supposed to sound like wheels spinning in the proverbial sense; I'm still attempting to determine whether or not that wispy, broadly smiling rib is enough to sustain us through the LP's less inspired moments.
The pillowy, studio-smoothed texture that defines Double Fantasy should have also legitimized the advertised "roughness" of its new counterpart, Double Fantasy Stripped Down, even if the liner notes reveal a perfunctory air toward the project on the part of Lennon's estate (Yoko, about as far out of character as the Japanese vibrato witch of rock-pop could possibly get, comments that "stripdown" is "what musicians do now"). But the disc's existential crisis is similar to the one that attracted skeptical purists to Let It Be…Naked with torches and pitchforks; between the Lennon Anthology box and various bootlegs, we've already heard these songs sans production fanfare or EQ sweetening, a transparency that maroons the archival value of these CDs in the no man's land between demo and alternate take. Even less convincing is Yoko's argument that Stripped Down offers a portrait of studio immediacy without adornment that once and for all flaunts Lennon's vocal prowess; there's no doubt that Lennon was the Beatles' most gifted singer, but his was a voice enriched by nearly corrosive sincerity rather than by choral dexterity. And it wavers so tenuously through the single take of "(Just Like) Starting Over" featured here that I was ready to shrug and banish the disc to the shelf.
Patience showed that this remix isn't quite superfluous enough to deserve that treatment, though it's still disappointing that almost none of its revelations are sonic. There's nothing here, for example, on par with the beaming, earnest guitar demo rendition of "Watching the Wheels," though the simplicity of this recording suggests how much of its catchiness is owed to session overdubs. Likewise, the right-to-left speaker separation in this mix gives the down home harmonicas of "Dear Yoko" enough breathing room, so to speak, to radically enhance the track's depth. But listening to the album front to back with headphones, my attention was only drawn away from my Internet browser and into my ear canals completely for the start of "Cleanup Time," which restores the final three words of—and thereby explains—a sideways Shakespearean allusion (atop a funkily effervescent guitar, Lennon tweaks the Weird Sisters's chant into a mantra of domestic jollity: "Bubble, bubble, toil and no trouble"). Elsewhere, the primary historical significance of Stripped Down is in displaying how much fun the sessions were compared to what eventually came out on vinyl; the impish song intros and outros, with throaty dedications to Elvis and protracted messages to Yoko, assure us that the Dakota Days hadn't stunted Lennon's giddy, pithily dada humor.
The Yoko tracks are still there, of course, and I'll likely be one of only a few critics to admit that without the soundboard chicanery, they're much less of a penance. With its whirlwind sounds excised, the broken glass (and broken English) orgasm of "Kiss Kiss Kiss" is effectively violent, and the sneakliy sweet shuffle of "Yes, I'm Your Angel" evinces a cloak-and-dagger showmanship lacking in the metronome-y click-clock of "Woman"—though it's no surprise that divorcing that song from its essential ocean of harmonies weakens it to the point of boredom. But this is a source of puzzlement on all the non-Yoko tracks; call her what you will (and, for the record, I'd deem her a delicacy to which one must become accustomed), she's never uninteresting.
Even as a bared-soul, one-man show on an LP like Plastic Ono Band, Lennon adjusted and perfected himself with clever production techniques. He didn't view naturalism as attainable through austerity alone; it had to be painstakingly sought through trial, error, and education. And sleek professionalism characterized Double Fantasy to such an extent that the record's isolated individual pieces never seem anything more than inchoate kernels in need of fleshing out. Double Fantasy Stripped Down tries to husk the album's craft to expose the rubbed-raw honesty within, but it condemnably forgets that in 1980, beside wife and child, Lennon's honesty was his craft.