How Does It Feel to Be So Wise?
on the rare usefulness of remasters
Title: Grey Seal
Artist: Elton John
Album: Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
Remasters are kind of a scourge on the contemporary listener, aren’t they? They appear with regularity—often unwanted and, more often, terrible. That remasters are pointless seems even more self-evident when you consider that the only albums that get remastered were hits in the first place—no one is clamoring for a remaster of Attila—so obviously people connected with the original recording. Why mess with that?1 That’s only a half-rhetorical question. I’m not entirely sure that I know the answer. But I’ve got one possible, and very dumb, solution: Old mixes and masters are effing up playlists.
I don’t make many playlists. Generally, I’m an album guy. But if we’re hosting a party, I like to make a playlist for the occasion. Of course, as a verifiable lunatic with obsessive tendencies, I will spend roughly 100 megaseconds working on said playlist, trying to craft just the vibe I want, even though no one but me will notice more than two songs. I have a problem, is what I’m saying.
But that’s beside the point. The point is that sometimes you know exactly the song that your playlist needs: the extremely essential, ideally integrated, perfect playlist plug—only you can’t include it because it was recorded in 1973 and the mix is all kinds of out of whack relative to the digital-era jams filling out the balance of the set.
I hate when that happens. And, admitting that the stakes here are low,2 this is a legitimate problem. Songs mixed prior to the peak of the digital age are almost always mastered or compressed at a lower level than their contemporary peers; this often gives a wide range of dynamics but it cuts down on sheer volume and, when thrown on a playlist with a bunch of modern tracks, these older songs can be so quiet as to be effectively silent by comparison. You don’t need me to tell you that it’s a bad idea to include a song that amounts to a four-minute block of silence on your playlist. No one wants to listen to John Cage at your birthday party.
All of this is a long-winded way of saying that, back when parties were, you know, a thing that could happen, I had wanted to include Elton John’s “Grey Seal”3 on one of my party playlists but feared that I couldn’t because its mix was too low. And then I found that Goodbye Yellow Brick Road had been remastered in 2014—and that the remaster wasn’t a mess!—so I could include it on my playlist after all. That was good news for me. Although maybe less-good news for you, as you’ve now had to sit through this entire anecdote that ends with exactly zero punch.
I give “Grey Seal” four out of five stars.
Occasionally, a welcome exception to this rule is made when we get remasters of the early releases from criminally underrated bands.
Just so, so unbelievably low. I cannot stress enough how low these stakes are.
A song that, for the longest time, I thought was named “Gracille.” As in, a mashup of the names Grace and Lucille. Despite what my parents would tell you, I was not always a terribly bright child.