Saturday, October 27, 2018

The Beatles (1968)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The bare white is a mask for the chaos waiting within the jacket, the combustion and electricity of the discs hidden by neutrality. Blistering, expansive, confounding and unsympathetic to explanation, it's a record of brilliantly uncontained impulse. The package's nonchalance seems well prepared for the controversies it would ignite and had already greeted, from serial killers to wives to fuming band members and producers. The final result is one that stands apart from anything else the Beatles released, particularly in their later period. The guard that tends to stand so solemnly between band and audience is absent, the rigorous control of output along with it, so that the album, deliriously eclectic and seeming -- on the first few listens -- maddeningly disorganzied, seems like maybe the truest document of these four men ever put on record.

"Four men" and not a band because, in most respects, this isn't a Beatles album as the term was previously understood. That they chose to title it with their own name almost seems to indicate a recognition of irony. It's not simply due to the fact that each member steps up to the microphone and the others -- often only one or two or even none of them -- function as a backing band, because let's not forget that the Beatles were really John Lennon's band early in their career. What it amounts to is the shock of the degree to which the synchronicity and energy that once seemed to be second nature to the entire band, functioning as a single unit, has faded. They sprawl in at least three different directions. The songs don't even grapple with the same themes anymore, and for certain the tracks on this sprawling double album aren't as directly personal as the early Beatles. In the complications it embraces, however, lies something even deeper.

Each Beatle's indulgences are stressed here, but fortunately they were all in a creatively fertile state of mind. George's songs are preachy but funny, John's are anthemic and naive but moving, Paul's are silly but cutting, and Ringo is Ringo but he's also Ringo. The worst tendencies of each Beatle aren't here because they hadn't yet succumbed to them, but every quirk of Lennon's seemed to irk McCartney and vice versa, while both got on George's nerves and all three bitched enough to make Ringo walk out for a few days. Yoko having a bed in the studio somehow didn't even things out, and the increasingly vocal George Martin was beginning to have reservations about the band's material. The songs were mostly a result of an extended hiatus in India after Brian Epstein's death, and there were tons of them, the list stretching to a Brill Building-sized catalog in itself. The only solution for these four territorial men was to create a massive two-record set encompassing everyone's work but, of course, mostly John and Paul's. Martin was adamantly opposed to the idea of a double album and was convinced several selections should have been left off entirely. He had never been so wrong about anything before.

The White Album, as it's known, was something no member of the band was entirely happy with, but it's perfect in a sense they couldn't possibly discern because it exists away from their standards. It's the sort of music they'd never made before and had perhaps no interest in making. The production retains an experimental edge but takes a back seat to the songs, which are neither typical songwriterly fare or the pseudo-poetic surrealism the Beatles had popularized of late. Many of them possess a sharp, (marvelously) mean-spirited satirical edge that make the Kinks' most vindictive songs seem trivial and overwrought. Of course, other tracks on the album are nonsensical rockers, some are ethereal ballads, some seem like practical jokes. There's nothing tying them all together except the random, tangential connections they suggest. The tracks don't consistently segue, but they ebb and flow, winding along in links that seem almost organic, haphazardly thrown around but growing along one another like twisting vines. The tapestry gives the ninety-minute album a unique sense of journey. This extra touch is precisely what an album with thirty songs desperately needs.

Paul has the most consistently entertaining material, opening the record with the audacious Beach Boys-Chuck Berry parody "Back in the U.S.S.R." He's never been funnier than on this album, his mocking edge at its sharpest. It's difficult to discern if some of his songs are send-ups or not: the sliding riff rocker "Birthday," the over-the-top bubblegum of "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," the brief failed experiment "Wild Honey Pie," the antiquated but fun ballads "Martha My Dear" and "Honey Pie," and "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?," which is either a snoozing waste of space or a missile launcher directed against the Rolling Stones and other cock-rock pioneers. McCartney's apathetic anything-goes stance could be a protest against years of fame and expectation, or it could just be his state of mind at the moment. The product of it is riveting either way.

"Rocky Raccoon" is obviously off-the-cuff -- and hilarious -- but it continues to show a man more willing to hide in the ridicule of clichés than to expose his own emotions. Even the quiet, moving "Blackbird" is a metaphorical, classically pretty song John Lennon would never write, from the same school as "Mother Nature's Son," scenic and melodic but again seeming to expose no more of its author than "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?". He's impenetrable... with two exceptions, and these are noteworthy because they mark a unique moment in Paul's career.

"I Will" and "Helter Skelter" couldn't be more different, but they are McCartney's best songs of the period. The former is a touching love song that hides behind nothing and, at less than two minutes, never contemplates wearing out its welcome. It doesn't even seem trite in retrospect following the next song, John's devastating "Julia." And "Helter Skelter" stands as one of the latter-day Beatles masterpieces, its guitars rolling and stuttering in a way both erotic and repellent, the lyrics consumed with desire and forgetting wholly about logic and coherence in the process. For four minutes or so, Paul almost sounds like a rock & roller, and the Beatles roll with it, culminating in the impossibly intense climax.

Ringo, the man who, at the close of "Helter Skelter," screams in pain, offers his first solo composition. "Don't Pass Me By" is sincere country in direct contrast to "Rocky Raccoon" but the sequence seems quite natural, and the song is surprisingly good, helped by wall-of-sound production that has Ringo at his best, ignoring drum conventions while singing his heart out. He does the latter again on the silly "Good Night," John's intentionally overproduced LP-ending track that does take on a degree of poignance after listening to the whole of the White Album, but infinite irony when laid up against its immediate predecessor, "Revolution 9."

Perhaps because of the length, George is more a presence here than on any other Beatles record. All four of his songs are good, even with "Piggies" a bit inconsequential -- the James Brown explosion "Savoy Truffle" is a stronger novelty -- and "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" nearly crushed by ponderous arena-rock guitar theatrics from supreme showoff Eric Clapton. But the tense, barely audible, breathtakingly dynamic "Long, Long, Long" is a forward-looking masterpiece that nearly tops "Within You Without You" and "What is Life?" in the Harrison catalog and sounds like nothing else the Beatles ever laid down; it's one of the few times George really compels as a singer and as a writer completely in touch with his genuine emotions, soon to be joined by "Something."

He remains a minor character compared to Paul and John, though, and indeed John on this album is still recovering from a severely aloof phase and no longer has the power or presence to be identifiable as the band leader or even its main creative force. Not one of his songs is even slightly weak, however. Only twice does he take Paul's all-a-big-joke veneer, on the wicked self-parody "Glass Onion" and grandly colorful "Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill." Otherwise, he populates his compositions with himself more than on any LP since Rubber Soul. The gentle, triumphant, ever so slightly ominous "Dear Prudence," the album's finest song, cannot be denied as one of his most uplifting works ever, while the delicate "Julia" may be the most personal song he ever wrote, so much so that it can be a harrowing, difficult listen. Even the lighthearted "Happiness is a Warm Gun," a lavishly fragmented piece that was later imitated by Paul on "You Never Give Me Your Money," is in sonic terms a close match for the lurching, painterly "Strawberry Fields Forever." Even in the backseat, Lennon was a consistently demanding and rewarding performer.

When he wants to bruise, he scars. "I'm So Tired" is a brief cut of magnetic, horrifying power, "Sexy Sadie" a character assault in the Dylan vein, infuriating and electrifying in its casual slaughter. Dylan is namechecked in the White Album's most addictive cut, "Yer Blues," a mammoth rocker with boiling rage that's a close match for "Helter Skelter" if it's not superior and features some of Lennon's greatest, most aggressive guitar playing outside of Yoko Ono's "Why." He can have fun, too; the twisted fable of "Cry Baby Cry" carries one of his best setups, and the ringing, furious "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" is the Beatles' most exciting pure rock & roll performance on record since perhaps the Hard Day's Night era.

John's, and the album's, most memorable and fascinating cut is the one everyone else including the producer wanted cut from the running. The sound collage "Revolution 9" is long, frightening, funny, and truly briliant, showing a band that, in the end, was not unwilling to leap into a grand risk and came out of it with a piece of work unique in their genre. Those who regard "9" as an abortion or a black mark on the Beatles' record would do well to listen with their ears instead of their precedents. Supremely ahead of its time and -- unlike most avant garde pieces -- worth hearing again and again, it documents and magnifies a world of chaos in a still-striking manner that can become almost therapeutic.

Even if all four Beatles never stood by this album, even if its very slapdash presentation seems to represent an instant rebuke of its own excesses (recalling Epstein's terrified request for brown bags to put over the front of Sgt. Pepper), it presents parts of them that we would never see again amid the familiarity of a returning favorite, and for that reason it's invaluable both on its own and as insight into a group that made such a difference in its time. But there's more to the White Album than historical document; more than anything else they released, it's alive. Too varied to ever grow tired, too unresolved and strange to ever stop at least partially confounding us, it's somehow unified in its lack of unity. Like so many of the greatest rock albums, it couches genuine eccentricity in the universal rhetoric of pop, and the cumulative impact of its messiness speaks loudly and uniquely; even if it's not really the same band that recorded Rubber Soul, it's a culmination of the same narrative, and to me at least, the greatest long-form achievement within that narrative.


[Expanded a bit from a review first posted in 2003.]

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