It might be slimmer, but the repackaging of Bob Marley
's epic box set only means that it's now worth twice its weight in gold. Originally released in 1992 as a limited-edition 6-by-12-inch longbox, the new SONGS OF FREEDOM is a four-CD, storage-friendly brick with a 95-page color book. And then as now, it's indispensable to the Marley fan or reggae aficionado. There's no shortage of posthumous Marley material out there -- from the Wailers' exuberant ska days to Bob's radio interviews to dub collections -- but unlike so many box sets, SONGS OF FREEDOM isn't interested in obsessive overkill; instead it celebrates the first truly worldwide star with an overview that digs deep into a rich and varied career. Marley's biggest hits, collected on the perennially popular LEGEND
, bristle with such bright arrangements and undeniable grooves that it's easy to lose sight of his songwriting. But the oft-made comparisons to Bob Dylan
are borne out on SONGS's rarities, alternate takes, and live versions. Marley was a master of many things: Rastafarian redemptive philosophy, Jamaican folk idioms, and, of course, American R&B. Plus, he could trade Biblical allusion with a Talmudic scholar. But his greatest skill was, he could get his musical vision across with an easy, disarming sensuality. Disc Two's 12-minute "Acoustic Medley" encapsulates Bob's facility with the simple love lyric ("Stir It Up"), the gospel-inflected redemption song ("This Train"), and the lusty rub-up ("Guava Jelly"). These rare moments, interspersed with standards of the Marley canon such as "No Woman No Cry," "Get Up, Stand Up," and "I Shot the Sheriff," create a portrait of the Gong as a working artist. Even those who credit Lee Perry as the architect of Bob's mystique through his collaborations with the Wailers will be persuaded by the power of Marley's songwriting gift. And by digging up pristine-sounding demos, SONGS rights the wrongs of LEGEND and NATURAL MYSTIC
, which presented reconstituted versions of "Could You Be Loved" and "Iron Lion Zion." Top all this off with beautiful sequencing, lovingly restored sound, and literate, informative notes by Timothy White, Derrick Morgan, and others, and you have one of the greatest box sets ever assembled.