Monday, July 16, 2018

The Beatles: Rubber Soul (1965)


(Parlophone)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

"Seduction, not assault." That's the way Greil Marcus described Rubber Soul in 1976. In that sense the album can be seen as a massive turnaround from the first five Beatles albums, even the quieter Beatles for Sale; they all depended on the bombastic qualities of pop form to demand the listener's attention. In the year of the Byrds and Dylan-goes-electric, Rubber Soul found the band expanding on the promises of Help!'s better half by refining their edge to create something more intricate and layered than had been previously attempted. A roar of electric guitars opens the LP, but they're an exception; this is a primarily acoustic, primarily poetic and introspective album.

It's not Simon & Garfunkel, though. It's thoughtful but not showy, revealing and sophisticated but not verbose or pretentious. On the majority of these songs, the Beatles are wry and playful to a degree not approached by anyone else who picked up a 12-string for the sake of folk-rock sheen. The infectiously funky "Drive My Car" and the almost vindictive "The Word" forecast the White Album in their cutting wit. The album closer "Run for Your Life" betters "You Can't Do That" (and equals the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb") in its broken, hateful brutality. Otherwise, the record is a subdued affair... but a cathartic, engaging one. Since I've heard this more than any other album (my old cassette is worn beyond recognition), it can be difficult to find any kind of perspective, but I'll try.

The first sign of great change is somewhere in "Norwegian Wood." Aside from the alien sound of the sitar, Lennon's voice is even more resigned than on "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." His lyrics are bracing, disturbing, sad, and brilliant, some of his best work ever, but as good as they are, it's the music that reveals the nuance of the story he tells, and even on the dark punchline, John's singing seems to surrender to the surrounding ocean of music throughout the brief recording. Its silly parenthetical title notwithstanding, this is a song that impresses on first listen and grows more compelling, even mysterious, with each additional listen. This is what Marcus meant by "seduction."

"Nowhere Man" is lyrically almost trite, but hidden somewhere in there ("doesn't have a point of view") is one man's anguish, a far cry from the warmth and swagger of "Wait," and making no concessions -- infectious melody aside -- to the deceptive radio blissfulness of "Help!". That same man finds a vent on "Girl," which along with "I'm Looking Through You" and "In My Life" is among the best songs in the Beatles' catalog, therefore in rock & roll. "Girl" is pure confessional fly-on-the-wall desperation, sighing and pausing with full understanding of its drama. There's nothing simple about it -- lyrically and musically, it slides gleefully afoul of all classification. And in the last verse, which manages to tackle Catholicism and death, with the subtly manipulative character of the title as a springboard, the drama unfolds into an instrumental break overflowing with tension just before the fadeout. The track is rife with what almost seems like deliberate sexual subtext, from knife-to-butter first second to sharp intake of breath to climax to the juvenile repetition of the word "tit." It ends much too early and offers no neat solution; the end result is even more unsettling than "Norwegian Wood." It's also a character portrait of unparalleled force and beauty.

Few songs could ever begin to stand up to "In My Life," however, which escapes from slick production to provide knockout bass and drums behind the most moving lyric created for any pop song, some of the best vocal harmonies imaginable, and a piano solo that underscores both the energy and the emotion. There is not a second that feels false or unfelt, and it remains unimaginably lovely and disarmingly mature, the full naked exposure of the introspective Lennon who began to reveal himself on "I Call Your Name" and "No Reply," on through "Help!", but only now achieving an unshaken confidence -- you can hear him singing through the words with such clarity, and you can hear his pride, not so much in his lyric as in that lyric's unfettered honesty. It tries to be no one else, and it communicates its sentiment impeccably without any conceit of distance. Almost certainly it's rock's most heartfelt, untainted moment.

Lennon's masterstroke this may be, but the others are far more of a presence than on A Hard Day's Night, which amounted to Johnny & the Moondogs. McCartney in particular is in stellar shape, following hard on his promising songs from the last few albums. (And check out his bass playing on "The Word"!) The enjoyable "Michelle," despite being supernaturally catchy, pales in comparison to Paul's other contributions here. "You Won't See Me" remains one of his greatest songs, swooning as it's helped along with a wonderfully lazy, rolling arrangement by the others. Everyone is at their best; it's possibly Paul's best vocal ever (listen to "I wouldn't mind if I knew what I was missing" and the second "it feeeeeels like years") and offers some of the best harmonies in the band's catalog, and Ringo's drums are as adventurous and beguiling as on "Ticket to Ride," nearly as much so as "Rain." It's also a Beatles song that feels free to take its time, yet never wears out its welcome.

But to my mind, "I'm Looking Through You" is tied with "Here, There and Everywhere" and "I've Just Seen a Face" as Paul McCartney's masterpiece. "I thought I knew you / What did I know?" is the best line he will ever read, will ever need to write. Sequenced side by side with "Girl," this illustrates the differences between the songs' composers. "Looking" stabs and concludes while "Girl" contemplates tortuously; Paul's song is the ultimate in pop music's portrayal of the breakup, with an eye to truth and emotion but an awareness nonetheless of the melodrama that drives the end of relationships. Without manipulation, it makes its point unguarded and creates something that, for all its aggression, is beautiful and assured. And there are days in your life when every word feels as if it makes complete sense, demonstrating the Beatles' great lyrical evolution since their earliest days; they'd never write more eloquently.

Harrison's work is scarcely less potent. He offers his best and most vulnerable love song in the oddly personal "If I Needed Someone" and writes one of the band's finest rockers in "Think for Yourself" (first use of the word "opaque" in a pop song?). Ringo even redeems "Act Naturally," shining on the country-western raveup "What Goes On," which he cowrote. This record is an absolute full-band effort, arguably their last unified album in the sense that all four members seem committed to the same basic vision for the album's mood, whereas the two psychedelic masterpieces to follow would almost celebrate their contradictions.

A side note: it's become a popular sentiment over the years to place the American revision of Rubber Soul on a pedestal over and over the Beatles' intended version; Capitol's album -- reviewed briefly elsewhere -- omits four songs, including the major "If I Needed Someone" and everpopular "Nowhere Man," and adds two leftovers from Help!, "I've Just Seen a Face" and "It's Only Love." (It also slightly alters the iconic cover, and in this case it probably is a slight improvement.) The argument is that this variation maintains the record's acoustic-folk theme more gracefully and consistently by dropping two of the louder songs, and also dismissing Ringo and George's relatively tentative contributions. While "Face" is a lovely song that sounds right at home here, it's otherwise hard to sympathize with this viewpoint, since "Drive My Car" is the only song that really justifies the album's title ("I'm Down" and "She's a Woman" both relegated to b-sides), and the hazy shyness of the missing "What Goes On" and "If I Needed Someone" enhances the record's mood perfectly, while "Nowhere Man" captures this moment in the Beatles' history too well to belong anywhere else. Essentially, as usual the U.S. record is a butcher job; an enjoyable butcher job, but a deeply unnecessary thwarting of the band's most cohesive record.

Resigned yet hopeful, Rubber Soul opens the curtain fully on an auspicious, unexplored world for a young band: the sky seems to really be the limit, and in less than three years the Beatles' evolution and quickly advancing artistic and emotional maturity are genuinely breathtaking, even now, even in contrast to either of their last two releases. But while it could be said that the record is a beginning of the ambitious midperiod, in reality, for me at least, it marks a single moment: a moment when the band functioned as a band, when Lennon was stepping down from his throne of power and Paul had yet to take on the position, resulting in a brief and joyous balance. The White Album may be the best work under their name, and A Hard Day's Night their most endearing and vital rock & roll, but Rubber Soul is the peak of everything that made this band great. It was not, by any means, downhill from here, but they would never duplicate or better it.

***

[Slightly expanded from a review first posted in 2003.]

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