What Constitutes the “Definitive Version” of a Piece of Music?

We've entered a new era of creative revisionism

April 3, 2023 6:00 am
Lucinda Williams, Angel Olsen, Jesse Malin
Who says you have to stop tweaking a song after it's already released?
Dina Regine/weeklydig/David Shankbone

When Jesse Malin made his 2003 solo debut, The Fine Art of Self Destruction, the New York rocker recorded all 12 songs in six days, which was all the studio time he could afford. The sessions went by so fast that Malin didn’t have many outtakes or extra material, so as the 20th anniversary of the album approached, the singer and songwriter opted instead to record new versions of nine of the songs from the original album.

“Usually, you can dig up those nuggets of lost tracks; I didn’t have that,” Malin tells InsideHook. “And I thought, these songs have grown from playing them live over the years, and we weren’t trying to beat the record, because the record is a snapshot in time, but let’s just have some fun and see if we can achieve something that we appreciated, where it felt different.”

When the reimagined songs came out in February as part an expanded reissue of The Fine Art of Self Destruction, Malin joined the ranks of musicians revisiting, and changing, their earlier work. For example, Lucinda Williams in 2017 released This Sweet Old World, a re-recorded, often rearranged take on her 1992 album Sweet Old World. It’s not just veteran artists tinkering with venerable albums, either: the indie-rock singer Angel Olsen in 2020 released Whole New Mess, which featured songs from her 2019 LP All Mirrors with different, stripped-down arrangements, and sometimes different titles. So far this year, Death Cab for Cutie and the Toronto alt-folk musician Dylan MacDonald, who records as Field Guide, have released acoustic versions of their respective full-band albums from 2022.

This penchant for musical revisionism calls into question the idea of what constitutes the definitive version of a song or album. It used to be that when an artist went into the studio, they would record a couple of takes of a tune, pick the one they liked best and compile an album of songs they would re-create in roughly the same form onstage when they toured (apart from jam bands, for whom albums were more like rough sketches for live shows. But enough about them). Later, maybe, some alternate takes or demos might surface as bonus tracks or as part of a boxed set. Last year, the wealth of alternate takes and different arrangements that Wilco offered on the super-deluxe edition of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot suggests it was a minor miracle the band ever emerged with a definitive version of the 2002 album.

Now, listeners can choose between Death Cab’s Asphalt Meadows and Asphalt Meadows Acoustic, or Field Guide’s self-titled album and Field Guide (Tape Redux). Offering up that choice is part of the point, MacDonald says.

“Putting out alternate versions and stuff, sometimes you do kind of wonder if you’re just saturating fans with too much, but I’d like to think it’s something that people can check out if they want,” he says. “We’re kind of presenting it as, ‘Hey, if you’ve seen me live opening up a show, you’ve probably heard these songs more in this way, and maybe that’s interesting to you.”

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In Williams’ case, her husband/manager had suggested revisiting Sweet Old World as a way of as reclaiming her original vision for what had become an arduous project during an unsettled time in her life.

“That was a very difficult album to make,” Williams told Rolling Stone in 2017. Once she overcame her initial reluctance to revisit those songs, “I got really pumped about it,” she said.

What Williams, Malin and others are doing is different from, say, the “Taylor’s Version” albums that Taylor Swift has been releasing as a way of sidestepping a conflict over ownership of the master recordings from her first six albums. While Swift is striving to make the re-recorded songs sound as close as possible to the original versions, other artists aren’t as concerned with that level of fidelity. In fact, they sometimes take the opposite approach.

“I had sung in punk bands and screamed a lot, and when I listened to The Fine Art of Self Destruction, I could hear that I’m trying to find my voice,” Malin says. “And some people have enjoyed that kind of awkward vocal that’s on there, but for me, I hear somebody that’s still figuring out how to sing more acoustic-driven music, and there’s a charm to it. But there’s also something that makes me feel a little uncomfortable.”

For Olsen, making two albums with versions of the same songs was about coming to terms with those songs. In fact, though Whole New Mess became her fourth album when it came out, she recorded it shortly before making All Mirrors, which she ended up releasing first.

“When I recorded All Mirrors, other people had their hands in the pot, which separated me from the songs,” Olsen told the London newspaper the Evening Standard in 2020. “I could get into them in a distant way. On Whole New Mess I’m feeling every feeling that they evoke.”

So which songs are the definitive ones? In some respects, the answer depends on the ear of the beholder. For musicians like Olsen and MacDonald, the songs they’ve revisited are different enough that each album can stand on its own. For Malin, the original tracks on Fine Art remain his guideposts, while the reimagined versions, he says, were “a fun thing to do for the deep fans.” 

Too much reinvention, he says, risks alienating people who fell in love with those songs in the first place.

“So, as a fan who would go see Bob Dylan, sometimes Bob Dylan doesn’t sing the songs the same way, and you don’t even know what song it is until it’s over, like some Grateful Dead bastardization of it,” Malin says. “That’s cool for him in some improv-y way, but for me, I never loved that.”

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