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Old Gold & Black

'Covers the campus like the magnolias'
"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

"Covers the campus like the magnolias"

Old Gold & Black

‘The Last Recordings’ has me feeling Rocky Mountain High (Again)

John Denver’s posthumous re-recording offers refreshing takes on old classics
Denver’s voice is deeper, richer and more mellifluous on this album than on his earlier recordings, writes Online Managing Editor Aine Pierre (Courtesy of Spotify)

Re-recordings and remasters have become something of a cause célèbre in the music industry. Country-turned-pop artist Taylor Swift has taken the world by storm with the re-recording and re-release of her back catalog — something she has smartly labeled “Taylor’s Version.” 

The estate of John Denver, who died by plane crash in 1997, released a posthumous re-recording album “The Last Recordings” on Nov. 17 to considerably less fanfare than Swift’s have received. In fact, the one article I could find on the release, written by Steve Knopper for Billboard, is as much about Swift as it is Denver. For sure, there are comparisons to be drawn between the two. For one, they are the No. 1 and No. 2 artists on my Spotify all-time list. They both had a profound influence on my childhood. And, oh, yeah, right, they’re both prolific and wildly successful songwriters who grew so weary of their record labels and lack of creative choices that they decided to re-record their old classics. 

This is my first ever music review, so bear with me. For this reason, I will leave it to my fellow Swifties to write the reviews of the long-awaited, seemingly soon-to-arrive “Reputation (Taylor’s Version).” As the self-proclaimed vanguard of Generation-Z Denver fans, however, I feel compelled to put my thoughts down about this album.

As the Billboard piece mentions — and I agree — a notable difference on this album is the maturity of Denver’s voice. It is deeper, richer and more mellifluous than on his earlier recordings. As someone who has long preferred Denver’s ‘90s voice — and who almost exclusively listens to live recordings because of it — these re-recordings are very welcome.

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What makes the re-recordings — or, in one notable case, breaks them — however, is the changes made to the music behind the words. For this reason, the album’s chef d’oeuvre is clearly “Rocky Mountain High,” where the addition of mature vocals, a twangy guitar and a whole lot of dimension — all while maintaining certain classic elements — offers a refreshing new take. For context, “Rocky Mountain High” has been one of my favorite songs forever — I literally have a photo of a rock with the lyrics carved into it in my childhood bedroom — but I have always hated the two-dimensional, boring original recording. In this version, Denver not only brings the dimension present in his live recordings of “Rocky Mountain High,” but he builds on it. I am electrified.

Some instrumental changes are minor but add to the mood of the song or, in some cases, text paint — matching music to the words being sung. In the opening track “Whispering Jesse,” a song I came to love while nursing a devsatatingly intense crush, additions of harmonica and orchestral strings increase the song’s pining quality. Denver also changes the emotional quality of “Sunshine on My Shoulders” — a song that has great personal meaning to me but never quite struck the right bittersweet note — to create a more uplifting song. However, the slow tempo and pining present in the singing still muddle rather than create an actual experience of emotional conflict. 

A trio of re-recordings add bells to a mixed effect. On what is arguably Denver’s most famous track, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” the slight addition of bells in the bridge is brilliant text painting, evoking a ringing telephone. In “Windsong,” a soaring ode to the breeze, the bells take a major role. It works, though, because it sounds like a wind chime and thus fits the song. It also meshes well with the addition of other nature-inspired sounds like the rustling of trees and the calls of birds. I will say, as an aside, that the flute that underscores much of the original recording is sorely missed here. 

In “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” however, the bells detract from the song. The bell sound starts very small, and they seem to represent the tears of a long, tragic goodbye. When the bells get louder and sharper, though, they eventually render the song unlistenable. Granted, crying is not controlled and can ruin songs, so maybe this is intentional. Either way, I’ll stick with the live version medley along with “Goodbye Again,” which is notably absent on this album. 

In two cases, the orchestral changes completely change my experience of the songs for the better. “Dreamland Express,” for example, has always creeped me out. Perhaps this is because the track is one of Denver’s more overtly sexual (see: “You said,/ ‘Hey there, sweet daddy/Everything is alright/For miles, there’s not a telephone line/There’s not a soul to disturb us/Don’t be nervous/Just come and be mine.”) and, well, I was five when I first listened to it. In “Dreamland Express” (John’s Version), the removal of the background singer — who mostly just sings “oooh” — and the addition of a jazzy mix of piano and percussion creates a softer, more Denver-like song. 

Similarly, “I’m Sorry” —  a song I have always loved despite the fact that it is whiny and self-pitying — gets a maturity boost from an electric guitar, heavy percussion and slightly strained vocals. While the lyrics still come off as a non-apology, it at least sounds more heartfelt, like someone who believes they have tried their best and failed. This is hammered home in the last chorus, where the live-version note change on “More than anything else/I’m sorry for myself” plays up the singer’s anguish. 

There are some songs that I firmly believe do not belong on this album. I love Denver so much, but “Perhaps Love” will never sound good with just his voice — it needs Placido Domingo. If Domingo was not available, and he apparently was not, then the song should have been cut. There are also songs that, due to the deepening of Denver’s voice, were out of the singer’s range by 1996 when the recordings were made, like “Love Again,” one of two songs on the album, alongside “Jet Plane,” that pales in comparison to the original. Also, the relatively niche “Christmas for Cowboys” was an odd choice, considering the tracks that were left off.

Especially since these recordings predate me by six years, I’m not saying that Denver should have included all of my personal favorites — though, if he had, “Flying for Me,” “Come and Let Me Look in Your Eyes,” “How Could I Leave You Again,” “Darcy Farrow,” “Wild Montana Skies,” “Starwood in Aspen” and “Calypso” would be here. Other notable absences include “Poems, Prayers, and Promises,” the title song on his LP, “Annie’s Song,” arguably the greatest ballad ever written, “Fly Away” (though, like “Perhaps Love,” this song needs Denver’s co-collaborator, Olivia Newton John) or “Thank God I’m A Country Boy,” which the Baltimore Orioles play at every home game. The addition of “Christmas for Cowboys,” “Dreamland Express” and “Whispering Jesse” (as much as I love the lattermost) are puzzling to me with these heavy-hitters left off the tracklist. Perhaps Denver was saving these for later volumes of re-records, plans for which would have been cut short due to his death. 

For now, I will choose to assess what is here and not what is not. The re-recordings are mostly strong, fresh interpretations of old classics. And honestly, “Rocky Mountain High” was good, and that’s all I needed.

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About the Contributor
Aine Pierre
Aine Pierre, Online Managing Editor
Aine is a senior from Cherry Hill, N.J. She is a history major with minors in journalism and sociology. When not in the OGB office, you can find her watching "Avatar: the Last Airbender" with her friends, obsessively refreshing her Twitter (sorry, X) feed or freaking out about the dog that she just saw. She also serves as Chief Editor of Three to Four Ounces Literary Magazine.

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  • A

    AnnDec 1, 2023 at 11:32 am

    Being that JD is sadly no longer with us, it came down to his estate to select the songs on this album. There were a lot of other new recordings of older songs that John made in 1996, they just weren’t all released (yet). There was a 5-CD boxed set called The John Denver Collection, from 1997, that had a number of these re-recorded hits, including Calypso, Annie’s Song, etc. It’s relatively easy to still find.

  • K

    Kathy LuxNov 29, 2023 at 5:16 pm

    If you haven’t watched the dvd of The Wildlife Concert, I would highly recommend that one since you enjoy JD’s more mature voice. It also come in cd…although many of the tracks between cd and dvd are the same, there are songs on each one that are not on the other
    I have been a JD fan since the early 70’s, and just love An Evening with John Denver….recorded live in LA….and the only record with the song “Annie’s Other Song” on it….I am surprised he never put it on a studio album or ever sang it in future concerts. I like is as much if not more than Annie’s Song

  • K

    Kathy LuxNov 29, 2023 at 11:59 am

    I am not sure if you are aware that there are 2 albums released from the September 1996 re-recording session that have 16 tracks instead of 12 as on this one.
    “Love Again” is the 26th studio album by American singer-songwriter John Denver released in 1996. It was released by CMC Records. It was also released in Europe as “The Unplugged Collection” It includes 4 songs not on this new “Last Recordings’ album: !. Annie’s Song. 2. Seasons of the Heart. 3. For You. 4. Thank God I’m a A Country Boy.
    “The Last Recordings” is also the same re-recordings of the cd that came out after JD passed “Celebration of Life (1943–1997)” that was released in 1997

    • M

      MorrisMar 11, 2024 at 12:37 pm

      The John Denver website says that “The Last Recordings” album was “recorded in Nashville in 1997 shortly before the singer’s untimely death, is a collection of Denver’s greatest hits reimagined as the singer wished to present them and intended by Denver to take the place of masters recorded under his decades-long run with a major label. Previously released only in a limited CD pressing in Europe.” The two of you suggest that this album has songs that are already available on previous releases. How do you know this when the official John Denver site suggests otherwise?