You might’ve heard some rumbling about a new Beatles song that came out a few weeks ago. Billed as the “last Beatles song,” “Now and Then” features the voices of all four Beatles members, a curious product given the disbanded group had tragically lost two of their members within the last 50 years. However, with the help of artificial intelligence, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were able to isolate George Harrison and John Lennon’s vocals from demo versions of the tracks. Adding some additional production and a 2023 revamp, the group decided to release the song, to the shock of their fans, in tandem with a documentary film Now and Then – The Last Beatles Song that describes the process of how the song was made.
While nearly all Beatles fans rejoiced at hearing one more song from one of the most beloved bands of all time, some questioned the ethics of releasing a song with the voices of the late Lennon and Harrison. This was also not the first time the band released something posthumously, releasing “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love” (originally a Lennon solo) as singles of their anthology albums. In addition, Yoko Ono, the widow of Lennon, has supervised the release of the posthumous duo album Milk and Honey.
Posthumous music, in fact, has been a standard industry practice for a long time. Unreleased music from a late artist has been released, no matter if they’re fully formed or just scraps of ideas, as a way to keep fan engagement, with or without the original artist’s permission. And while The Beatles had Lennon’s blessing and Ono’s extensive help, posthumous music isn’t always released with good intentions, with some labels seeing it as a cash–grab opportunity. Is posthumous music something worth continuing, and how does one honor an artist’s legacy without disrespecting their original artistic visions?
When posthumous releases are treated with care and respect, it can be a way to commemorate an artist's life work and their impact on the industry. Many posthumously released albums are considered some of an artist’s best work. Think Circles by Mac Miller, Dreaming of You by Selena, or I Care 4 U by Aaliyah. Tragic circumstances surrounded their deaths, but their final posthumous album not only highlights their strongest assets, but also stands alone as an impactful final project from a budding star that left us too soon.
Similarly, another common practice is releasing “unreleased tracks” from an artist’s archive, offering a gift to fans, while not disturbing too much of the artist’s original work. This type of release usually comprises uncompleted demos and voice memos from the studios, so they’re not always fully finished tracks. Sometimes, it might just be a fully completed track that the artist didn’t want to release. Prince’s estate allowed for the release of Originals in 2019, which was a compilation of all the demos Prince created that eventually became tracks for another artist. The Beatles also employed this method throughout their post–disbandment years, releasing Anthology 1, 2, and 3 which contained a collection of outtakes, live performances, and voice memos during recording sessions. Unsurprisingly, all three anthology albums sold extremely well, with all three peaking at number one on the US Billboard 200 Albums Chart, and within the top 5 in the UK Albums Chart.
The new Beatles track, too, exists on a similar wavelength of honoring Lennon’s legacy and work. The demo for “Now and Then” existed on a cassette tape following Lennon’s death, and Yoko Ono offered the song in 1994 to the remaining Beatles (pre–Harrison’s passing) to complete it for a reunion single. Their first attempt at making the song went bust, due to the incomplete nature of the demo, but McCartney and Starr worked on it for many years, using modern technology and recording software to create a complete version of the song.
What’s peculiar about the Beatles song is how they mixed in Lennon’s vocals from the original cassette. McCartney revealed in June 2023 that they’ve used artificial intelligence to separate Lennon’s vocals from the demo and placed the audio onto the new, 2023 mixing. “[N]othing has been artificially or synthetically created. It's all real and we all play on it. We cleaned up some existing recordings – a process which has gone on for years,” McCartney told Deadline, possibly due to fears that Lennon will be replaced by a synthetic Vocaloid of the beloved English singer.
This example is where posthumous recordings begin finding fuzzy grounds. Even with McCartney’s insistence that the voice on the track is, indeed, Lennon’s, would the singer approve of such a modern measure to release the track? Similarly, following the band’s first attempts at making the track, Harrison supposedly thought their attempts at the song were “rubbish” as he hated the technical elements of the song. And while McCartney and Starr did end up making a final version, it was only made possible with modern technology and the aid of AI. Harrison’s wife did give her blessing, but would Harrison himself approve of the modern revamped version of the track he hated before his passing?
On the other end of the spectrum, there are albums that many agree were purely a cash–grab by their original record label. Michael Jackson’s MICHAEL and Pop Smoke’s Faith appear to be two glaring examples of posthumous albums sold in bad faith. With MICHAEL, all of the tracks were supposedly material created during Jackson’s previous album sessions. The lead single, “Hold My Hand” with Akon, did have Jackson’s handwritten approval to be released. However, the circumstances leading up to its release remained suspicious, as the authenticity of tracks like promo single “Breaking News” and two other tracks was heavily disputed to not be Jackson’s voice. These three songs have since been removed from streaming and new reissues of the album, implying that these tracks (and possibly the album as a whole) had less than good intentions with its release.
The conception of Faith, too, is surrounded by justifiable controversy. Pop Smoke’s debut album Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon was Smoke’s first posthumous release, but the album was mostly done when he tragically passed away. With the help of 50 Cent and Pop Smoke’s personal notes on his phone, a complete project was finished with the blessing of Pop Smoke’s mother. Faith, however, was a hodgepodge creation filled with clearly unfinished songs and ideas that weren’t fully fleshed out. And even though the hip–hop genre has frequent features and guest verses, Faith is almost entirely filled with features, mostly serving as a filler for uncompleted Pop Smoke verses. It’s hard to say if Pop Smoke would’ve approved of any of the songs on here, as it lacks any direction or meaning, but the label certainly pushed forward with it. It’s not surprising that the album ended up on many year–end worst lists.
The existence of posthumous music is a double–edged sword and requires careful handling. With such a lucrative market and ideas like the celebrity hologram of a dead artist such as Jackson, handling their craft should preserve their artistic visions. Projects like Circles and Dreaming of You were able to present to the world Mac Miller and Selena’s artistry; MICHAEL and Faith arguably did not. With the muddled ethics of putting out music that possibly was never meant for mass consumption, any decision in its release should require all relevant parties to make a conscious effort to protect the artist’s original vision. “Now and Then,” then, lies in a weird middle ground. Did it do Lennon and Harrison justice? That can only be up to you, the listener, to decide.