Complete Third follows the trail of Big Star’s classic album from first to last pulse in an exhaustive boxed set that gives listeners every known scrap of recorded music tracked during those sessions.

Third had a notoriously tortured birth. When guitarist/vocalist Alex Chilton and drummer/vocalist Jody Stephens convened for recording in 1974 at the storied Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tennessee there wasn’t really a Big Star to speak of. Founding member Chris Bell bailed after the release of #1 Record, bassist Andy Hummel returned to college, finding the halls of the academy a much saner place than the world of rock ‘n’ roll. The band wasn’t the only thing coming unhinged: Chilton was in fragile mental state, embroiled in a love affair that can be at best described as dysfunctional, and enjoying a smorgasbord of drugs that might have cut down other men. Much has been made of the toxic environment in which the record (sometimes called Beale Street Green, other times Sister Lovers), the chaotic running order and its long and winding road toward a proper release.

The most popular version has long been the 1992 Rykodisc release, its issue heavily aided by producer Jim Dickinson who gave the record probably its most coherent running order. For many fans it’s Big Star at its finest. For all the mystery that surrounds it, there’s something it holds that was consistent across all the Big Star material from the 1970s: Excellent songs and vocal performances from Chilton that placed him in a category all his own. When he sang, no matter the song, it was like hearing music in its purest form. When he wrote, no matter the subject matter, it was expression on a rare level: direct, imaginative, universal.

The music could sometimes be scary, the sound one might imagine as trumpeting the arrival of Armageddon. Witness “Kizza Me,” a muscular, discordant foray into anti-music. All the production touches and hints of music made through the haze of bloodshot eyes can’t hide Chilton’s gift for hooks. It’s that tune that kicked off the Rykodisc edition, providing a jolt for listeners who may have been expecting the sweet, British Invasion-influenced vibe of #1 Record or, really, anything tuneful at all. It was an act of aggression, one guaranteed to thwart casual listeners and shock unwitting party guests. More than 40 years after it first sprang from Chilton’s head the tune retains its initial power, though the full magnitude of its derangement sounds clearer, better than it ever has before. It appears in three different iterations here: In embryonic form on the first disc, the drums and bass propelling the tune like a rabid, metallic freak out; there’s the second disc’s slightly more polished version that’s still as harrowing and the completed version in all its dark vibrancy.

“Big Black Car” appears in several variations: Two country-tinged acoustic renditions on the first disc that seem closer to something that might have appeared on either #1 Record or Radio City. Neither represents a finished song: You can hear Chilton still finding the words and property cadence, though he commits to the songs, giving performances in these roughs that other artists would kill to find in their final takes. A later band version barely hangs together, at times almost floating away from the band and becoming utter silence. It meanders this way and that, clocking in at just over six minutes before finally crashing down. A later Dickinson rough mix shows Chilton and the group seizing the song, finding its desperate and sometimes deranged emotional center. It’s close to the finished product, where the vocalist gives probably his best performance in this collection.

A few, such as “Like St. Joan” (which would become “Kanga Roo”) and “Holocaust” are almost superior to the end results. The reveal Chilton’s focus and commitment as well as his tendency to throw caution to the wind, taking risks with the melodies and chords. They also reveal the lyrics in their most naked, honest form and the emotional punch they pack is undeniably awe-inspiring. “Take Care,” on the other hand, is a portrait of a man hanging on to his own sanity by a thin, thin thread, the initial version having all the uplift of a suicide note.

The second disc allows us to compare rough mixes prepared by both Jim Dickinson and John Fry. Fry’s takes tend a little more toward the weird and sometimes lack the rush of the final versions. “Femme Fatale” veers toward the plain while “Thank You Friends” has a mischievous spark that the completed track doesn’t; Dickinson’s take proves rawer but arguably more soulful. As brilliant as his performances are, Chilton isn’t above mistakes. His go at “For You,” the quintessential Jody Stephens number, falls flat as he searches for the lyrics and fails to find the appropriate feel. “Lovely Day” carries a gorgeous Beatles-style vibe that becomes muted in the final, that version sounding far more like the Big Star of previous albums than anything from an outside camp.

Hardcore fans could easily spend the rest of their days comparing these versions with the completed ones, going back and forth about the choices made and maybe even forming their own single-disc running order based on all the pieces now available.

Nothing the fans could do would carry the weight of the finished product, which occupies the final disc. Third is there in all its weirdness, its jarring transitions and drug-induced beauty. Holding back tears during “Jesus Christ” and “Nature Boy” becomes next to impossible. It’s not necessarily because those songs are sad or more moving than they were before but because you know what’s coming: How Chilton will try to distance himself from the band and his pop past, how he’ll participate in a resurrected version of the band but never reach the heights he was still capable of when he entered Ardent in 1974. The voice that lulls us into a rare moment of calm on “Blue Moon” may be one of the finest to have ever stepped in front of a microphone.
A bevy of fan testimonials occupy highly detailed liner notes that enhance the listening experience and make Complete Third the box to have this season and the definitive statement on one of the greatest lost rock records of all time.

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