Conventional wisdom holds that the Beatles intended Abbey Road as a grand farewell, a suspicion seemingly confirmed by the elegiac note Paul McCartney strikes at the conclusion of its closing suite. It's hard not to interpret "And in the end/the love you take/is equal to the love you make" as a summation not only of Abbey Road but perhaps of the group's entire career, a lovely final sentiment. The truth is perhaps a bit messier than this. The Beatles had tentative plans to move forward after the September 1969 release of Abbey Road, plans that quickly fell apart at the dawn of the new decade, and while the existence of that goal calls into question the intentionality of the album as a finale, it changes not a thing about what a remarkable goodbye the record is. In many ways, Abbey Road stands apart from the rest of the Beatles' catalog, an album that gains considerable strength from its lush, enveloping production -- a recording so luxuriant, it glosses over aesthetic differences between the group's main three songwriters and ties together a series of disconnected unfinished songs into a complete suite. Where Sgt. Pepper pioneered such mind-bending aural techniques, Abbey Road truly seized the possibilities of the studio and, in doing so, pointed the way forward to the album rock era of the 1970s. Many of the studio tricks arrive during that brilliant suite of songs, a sequence that lasts nearly a full side of an album. Here, McCartney's playful eccentricity juts against John Lennon's curdled cynicism, while the band thrills in sudden changes of mood and plays plenty of guitar, culminating in McCartney, Lennon, and George Harrison trading solos on "The End." The depth of sonic detail within "You Never Give Me Your Money" and "She Came in Through the Window" provided ideas for entire subgenres of pop in the '70s, but Abbey Road also contains a handful of the most enduring Beatles songs, each adding a new emotional maturity to their catalog. The subdued boogie of Lennon's "Come Together" contains a sensuality previously unheard in the Beatles -- it's matched by "Because," which may be the best showcase for the group's harmonies -- Harrison's "Something" is a love ballad of unusual sensitivity, and his "Here Comes the Sun" is incandescent, perhaps his purest expression of joy. As good as these individual moments are, what makes Abbey Road transcendent is how the album is so much greater than the sum of its parts. A single song or segment can be dazzling, but having a succession of marvelous, occasionally intertwined moments is not only a marvel but indeed a summation of everything that made the Beatles great.
If the Anniversary Edition of Abbey Road may seem a bit underwhelming in comparison to its Sgt. Pepper and White Album companions, that speaks not to the quality of the reissue but the source material. Where the original stereo mixes of both Pepper and the White Album weren't as considered as the original mono mixes, thereby giving producer Giles Martin the opportunity to replicate the feel of mono in a new stereo mix, Abbey Road was given a state-of-the-art stereo mix -- one that pioneered many lush studio innovations that helped shape the sound of the 1970s. On the margins, the original mix sounded dated, but its enduring influence also meant that it wasn't a ripe candidate for a radical new remix. Thankfully, Martin resists the urge to fiddle with Abbey Road. His new stereo mix feels like a fresh, vivid rendition of the original, one where the colors are bright and bold but not saturated. Listen closely and it's possible to discern shifts in placement of the rhythm section, accentuated echo -- or in the case of "Oh Darling," an absence of echo -- boosted harmonies, buried guitar lines, or a wider soundscape, but the remix is so absorbing, it doesn't invite nitpicking.
The alternate takes, demos, studio sessions, and chatter that fill out the two bonus CDs also aren't heavy on surprises. There is only one cut that could qualify as being unheard as a Beatles song -- "Goodbye," an acoustic demo of a sweet, poignant tune Paul McCartney wrote for Mary Hopkin -- although it's possible the "trial edit" of "The Long One," aka the closing suite on the second side, may also count in this category. "The Long One" does insert "Her Majesty" into its original slot following "Mr. Mustard" and preceding "Polythene Pam," a placement that sounds clumsy and only underscores that the Beatles' original decision was their best decision. That's the case with all the outtakes on Abbey Road: they're interesting, but they ultimately confirm that the group put their best material on the final LP. Despite this, there are still plenty of small moments that make this Anniversary Edition worth hearing, whether it's John Lennon's raw rasp on "Come Together," George Harrison pulling "Something" into shape on the studio demo, or Paul McCartney's directions on "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," which sounds not quite as cloying stripped of its overdubs. Perhaps these moments won't make for regular listening, but they are worthwhile additions to the historical record, as they give a good sense of how the Beatles worked in the studio.