Box sets hold dubious promise in my mind. Sure, the idea of getting a whole lot of an artist's output in one package is appealing, but often these sets are marketed to reel in the major fan of a classic artist, causing that fan to pay more money for a product than he reasonably would. Usually the fan is drawn in with the promise of some holy grail of unheard tracks and tantalizing outtakes to sweeten the deal. The Signature Box was released in conjunction with newly remastered CDs of individual albums coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the slain Beatle’s death and also what would have been his 70th birthday.
This box does not hold much to draw in the already initiated Lennon fan. Containing a total of 11 discs, it has all eight of Lennon's solo albums, a disc that contains his singles that were not released on albums, and a final disc that holds few studio outtakes and home demos. If there is one thing that can be said about The Beatles as a group and individually, it is that they have left their fans constantly wanting more with a voracious appetite that has raked in royalties galore. But this also means that there is little left to offer the fans when the subject has been dead for thirty years. Also consider that a huge collection of Lennon's home demos are already available to fans in the form of the Lost Lennon Tapes. Paul McCartney commented on the making of “Free As A Bird” for the Beatles’ Anthology in the ‘90s that the demos that Yoko had given the remaining Beatles to work with were already well known to Lennon fans because of this availability. Taking all of this into consideration, what more is there to offer fans by another box set?
For people (like readers of The Daily Vault) who are fans of entire albums and not just individual songs from an artist, the Signature Box does hold one intriguing aspect. All of Lennon’s albums are presented in their entirety, preserving the original track listings without the insertion of extraneous material, thus providing the listener with the full arc of Lennon’s post-Beatles career. This presentation shows Lennon’s initial promise as a solo artist, beginning with Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, which peeled back the Beatle layers to show the troubled and conflicted soul that Lennon was. After these two albums, though, it is clear that Lennon just could not pull it together to produce memorable material. Juxtaposed with Plastic Ono Band and Imagine, Sometime In New York City, Mind Games, Walls And Bridges and Rock And Roll, show a complacent Lennon, just checking the boxes and stamping the time card for putting out a new album of material for dedicated fans. This mediocre production in the mid-‘70s makes Double Fantasy and Milk And Honey seem all the more poignant, since they show Lennon coming back into songwriting, developing decent work, and launching a reinvention of his career. Lennon’s tracks on those two albums showed real promise, and that he was actually taking his career seriously. Yoko’s tracks were par for the course for her work, and it is a shame that her material does not complement Lennon’s. The alternating Lennon/Ono track lists for Fantasy and Honey are schizophrenic at best, but if you ignore Ono’s contributions and just listen to Lennon’s, it is hard to not be overcome with a sense of what could have been if he had not been killed.
The extras on the Signature Box do not cover any ground that has not been covered by other boxes or bootleg sets that are widely available to Lennon fans. Therefore, the question of acquiring this box is one of economics. For a Beatles fan who wants a quick initiation to the Lennon solo catalog in one fell swoop, then this set is a great addition to a collection even if Lennon’s solo career was mediocre when compared to fellow Beatle alum McCartney’s production during the same period. For the well-seasoned fan who has heard the catalog and the myriad demos and outtakes that have been released over the years, then this box is best left on the shelf. This fact, coupled with the reverse bell curve nature of Lennon’s post-Beatle work, marks this collection as average.