Only "How Do You Sleep?" from Lennon's second solo album, Imagine, benefits from a lack of production. Without the Phil Spectorian polish in place, Lennon's swipe against McCartney has a stronger anguish. "Imagine" suffers in comparison. Nearly everything is in place, but John Barham's harmonium grounds the track with an ambient buzz. The difference between these unvarnished takes and the official tracks that seemed so raw and off the cuff is alarming. Lennon was such a pro that he could mask his perfectionism as something spontaneous.
Which is what makes the New York City disc so infuriating. It's as if all his critical faculties left at once. The material is laughable. "Attica State," recorded live at the Apollo, is raunchy, but what a terrible song. "Woman Is the Nigger of the World" never improves with age. The home version here suggests that had Lennon listened to the playback, he might have realized this. "Luck of the Irish" and "John Sinclair," both recorded live in Ann Arbor, are witless polemical devices with the barest of melodies. By the time Lennon returned to crafting melodies again, he was losing ground with Yoko, as evidenced by the home recordings of "Mind Games," and was growing increasingly unsure of his musical future.
By disc three, "The Lost Weekend," he's out in L.A., dredging up old Fifties rock-and-roll standards and a collection of tunes that would be among his most desperate on the much underrated Walls & Bridges album. "Nobody Loves You When You're Down and Out" is presented in an appealingly stripped-down version that accentuates the bitter portrait of the lyric. Lennon's gruff vocal comes across like sandpaper, telling us, "I'll scratch your back and you knife mine." The arrangement is tasteful, unlike the over-the-top crescendo of the official version. A "Yesterday" parody from these sessions shows both his lingering annoyance with the Beatles' mythology and his amusement with the sappier tendencies of his former co-conspirator Paul McCartney.
After five years of shutting down, Lennon came back revitalized. "Beautiful Boy" and "Woman" were Lennon at his sappiest, but with "Nobody Told Me," "I Don't Wanna Face It," "Watching the Wheels," "I'm Stepping Out," and "Borrowed Time," he had a selection of songs as melodically powerful and lyrically substantial as needed to begin the Eighties. The acoustic guitar demo of "Wheels" shows he was in good form. He gooses lively performances out of his crack band of sterile studio pros, Earl Slick and Hugh McCracken on guitars, Tony Levin on bass, and Andy Newmark on drums. He sounds loose, like a prizefighter anxiously pacing the ring, glad to be back and ready to take on all comers.
Sadly, the box set can't leave well enough alone. Beatles' producer George Martin takes on the impossible task of marrying Lennon's rudimentary piano demo of "Grow Old With Me" with the sophisticated string arrangement Lennon imagined for the song. But Lennon's shaky demo and the professional clarity of Martin's string section can never be successfully fused. Technology allows us many things. This isn't one of them. Other home demos vary, too. The unadorned piano demo for "Real Love" is pretty. "Serve Yourself," a cranky take on Bob Dylan's born-again phase, is funny enough and tongue-in-cheek in the way you imagine the private Lennon to be. But the closing "Satire" series is impossible to listen to: unfunny quips and impromptu Dylan impersonations, the equivalent of fart jokes. You imagine Lennon rolling in his grave, wondering why they can't leave him in what he always claimed he stood for: peace.