Remake, remodel: what makes musicians rerecord old albums?

The Shins and Car Seat Headrest are the latest bands to indulge in rerecording their earlier work. Is it money for old rope, or a chance at artistic liberation?

The next month brings not one but two instances of bands rerecording entire albums. This Friday, the Shins release The Worm’s Heart, a “flipped” version of last year’s Heartworms, in which the running order is reversed and each song performed in a different style. On 16 February, Car Seat Headrest follow suit with a new version of 2011’s Twin Fantasy, an emo lo-fi album in which the then 19-year-old Will Toledo dissected his toxic love life.

The latter case is easy to understand. What ended up being a touchstone album for CSH’s fans was originally recorded by Toledo alone on a laptop, and it sounds like it. Its power comes from its intimacy, the sense of performer speaking directly to listener, almost unmediated. But since then Car Seat Headrest have become a proper band, and Toledo apparently had it written into his deal with Matador that he could revisit the album. “It was never a finished work,” he has said, “and it wasn’t until last year that I figured out how to finish it.” The comparison between the old and new album is like that between a demo and a finished record: everything is punchier, bigger, brought into focus. Things are different in places (Nervous Young Inhumans has a new set of lyrics), but it’s not a reimagining so much as a clarifying.

The case of the Shins is odder, not least because Heartworms, while a perfectly decent record, was not a landmark for anyone, neither James Mercer nor his fans; The Worm’s Heart sounds not like he had a desperate yearning to uncover new depths in his songs, more as if he either wanted to have fun or just wasn’t sure how the songs sounded best. At the end of it all, he has two perfectly decent records of the same songs, which might add up to one rather better album if he were to cherry pick the best versions from across the two recordings.

Listen to the Shins’ new version of Dead Alive from The Worm’s Heart

Pop history is replete with artists revisiting songs. In the age of the standard, no one thought twice about crooners going back to songs they had recorded before – Frank Sinatra’s catalogue blossoms with duplications – because the meaning of the song might change with the growing age and experience of the singer. It’s hardly unusual, still, for older singers to circle round again to songs of their youth and revisit them to dig out fresh perspectives. Last year, Lucinda Williams released This Sweet Old World, a rerecording of 1992’s Sweet Old World that stripped away the folky instrumentation of the original to give a second chance to songs that she thought had been overlooked. In 2011, Kate Bush released Director’s Cut, updating older songs in accordance with her current taste.

Lucinda Williams.
Second chance … Lucinda Williams. Photograph: David McClister/Handout

And, as with Car Seat Headrest, it’s far from uncommon for groups to take advantage of better recording facilities to try to make an album sound the way it did in their heads before they ever went into the studio. That’s common in metal, perhaps because groups recording independently way back when couldn’t dream of a recording that replicated the power they wanted. The results, though, don’t always delight the fans. In 2014, Flotsam and Jetsam revisited their 1988 album No Place for Disgrace, to which Encyclopaedia Metallum esponded with the magnificently withering: “I’ve certainly heard bands shit all over their histories, when this is just sort of taking a long leak on one.”

Increasingly, though, artists are returning to old work for financial reasons, trying to get their share of the revenue. In the days when record labels were all-powerful, contracts were usually structured in such a way that labels owned the long-term rights to recordings – and reaped the financial benefits. Back in 1993, Suicidal Tendencies made a new version of their debut album because they were fed up of the returns they got on it from Frontier Records. It’s become even more of an issue in recent years, when the way music is sold and consumed is unrecognisable from the era when so many contracts were signed. There are countless bands with catalogues covered by deals that existed before digital music, or before syncing became a crucial prop to recorded music revenues.

Hence the number of veteran artists – Squeeze, Def Leppard and Jeff Lynne’s ELO among them – who’ve taken a sweep through their catalogues, rerecording their classics in a manner as near to the originals as possible. As Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze wrote in the Guardian when the band released Spot the Difference, an album covering their best-known songs: “To think that we could now actually earn something decent from the use of our songs in TV ads or movies is refreshing ... this is an invitation to ad agencies and music supervisors around the world: we are open for business!”

Squeeze: Gilson Lavis, Don Snow, John Bentley, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford
Refreshing … Squeeze in 1982: Gilson Lavis, Don Snow, John Bentley, Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford. Photograph: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

But it’s not always a hard-headed decision to rerecord. Sometimes it’s hot-headed. Such was the case with the 2002 edition of Ozzy Osbourne’s albums Blizzard of Ozz and Diary of a Madman, where the contributions of bassist Bob Daisley and drummer Lee Kerslake were replaced. That was down to the pair deciding to sue their old boss for unpaid royalties, to which Ozzy’s wife and manager Sharon did not take kindly. Although she claimed in 2002 that the new recordings were Ozzy’s decision – “because of Daisley and Kerslake’s abusive and unjust behaviour, Ozzy wanted to remove them from these recordings” – Ozzy said in his autobiography it was nothing to do with him, and that Sharon “just snapped”.

This was one of those occasions when no one comes out of it well. Daisley and Kerslake lost their case, Ozzy and Sharon were roundly excoriated for their vindictiveness, and later editions of the albums restored the original bass and drums. Was it worth it, Ozzy? Which, really, is the question worth asking about every rerecording.


Michael Hann

The GuardianTramp

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