If the Beatles' cover of Barret Strong's "Money" displayed a subtle hint of sarcastic frustration with manipulation at the hands of a label that capitalized on their hit-making abilities and the A Hard Day's Night project contained a readily apparent undercurrent of fame rejection wrapped up in its excited visuals and bubbly tunes, Beatles For Sale is where the band at last made completely clear their exasperation. The title itself clues you in, its frank, fatalistic description of their creativity. This was their fourth album recorded in less than two years, to say nothing of a number of non-album singles -- and that's not even taking into account the gutting of their work by EMI subsidiary Capitol in America, who'd gone from great packages like Meet the Beatles! to some thoroughly unoriginal stuff meant to stretch out the band's work into even more albums than were released in the UK (British LPs tended to come with 6-7 tracks on each side compared to America's five or six, allowing for more free material to spawn extra records).
A Hard Day's Night proved that the band was a bona fide worldwide phenomenon, but it translated into yet more pressure, as that album's marked improvement only increased expectations. For the band, the fun of it all was rapidly draining away, replaced by incessant talk of their sales figures and press junkets as grueling as the actual live performances. So, resentment set in, and the group's expanding songwriting skills allowed them to address their concerns in their own inimitable way.
Adding to the edge is the pronounced influence of Bob Dylan. The nods to Dylan in AHDN reflected how new he was to the band, and Lennon's attempts to ape him on "I Should Have Known Better" were more a friendly gesture of fandom than a concentrated effort to emulate the artist after poring over his records. But Beatles For Sale came out 5 months later, which is like 2 human years in Beatles time. Lennon's opening triptych -- "No Reply," "I'm a Loser" and "Baby's in Black" -- display the darker side of his wit, one openly influenced by the wry frankness of Dylan's records. Where the band's songs previously dealt almost exclusively with young love, Lennon expands upon the jealous paranoia of "You Can't Do That" with "No Reply," in which the woman, now perhaps genuinely unfaithful (though I'd bet that she simply moved on and got a new boyfriend), is being stalked by the obsessed man. He watches her through windows and hounds her telephone so much that her friends always answer to deflect him.
This dark anti-love ode leads directly into the thoroughly Dylan-esque "I'm a Loser." It starts off with Lennon's sad lover persona at last coming to self-realization, complete with borderline bass vocals from Lennon as the bouncing instrumentation is poppy, though that bubbly sheen that masked some of the group's early mature moments fades into transparency here and there, revealing not only the sadness of the dejected lover but also of the broader message of hypocritically putting on a happy face to show the world when you're dying inside ("Beneath this smile/I am wearing a frown"). "Baby's in Black" then juts into a new direction: the story of a man pining for a woman still grieving her lost love, it is simultaneously the most somber track the band recorded up until that point and their most darkly hysterical. Its waltz-like structure and emphasis on the wordplay-filled chorus give it a tongue-in-cheek feel that I'm not convinced was entirely intended, but it offers a great display of Lennon's wit.
"Baby's in Black" also signifies the band's growing musical complexity and studio experimentation, with Lennon and McCartney's harmony sung so close together that they're practically indistinguishable. The band spent a good seven hours across two sessions devoted entirely to "Eight Days a Week," each take yielding dramatically different arrangements. The album version is bouncy and spry, but with a sense of weariness and grit underneath that further demonstrates the eroding joy in the band's sound. In a subtle move of innovation, the song fades in, compared to the common usage of the fade-out in pop/rock tunes. "I Don't Want to Spoil the Party" continues the bleaker feel of the opening salvo, and almost serve as a prologue to Lennon's earlier tunes. Here, he sits at a party, waiting for his date to show, only to realize at last that she's stood him up and that he should leave rather than spoil other people's fun. It even shares some of the creepier melody of the first two songs.
Despite these impressive steps forward, the band lapses back into covers after their first all-original album, a sign of fatigue more prominent even than the weariness and tension in Lennon's tunes. Six of the album's 14 tracks are covers, and the majority rank among the band's weakest numbers. Where they took tracks like "Money" and "Twist and Shout" and put a permanent stamp on them, they struggle here to even give the numbers a straight run-through. McCartney struggles with Little Richard's "Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey!" and Harrison sounds as tired as John on "Everybody's Trying to Be My Baby." Worst of all is John's cover of "Mr. Moonlight"; if "Devil in Her Heart" off of With the Beatles was, as Pitchfork Media described it, "an obscurity too far," then John went even further to dust off this awful little number, a jumbled mess that does no one in the band any favors.
Despite the uneasiness of the covers and the bite of the original lyrics, however, this is not a wholly dark experience. Their cover of Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music" jumps to life after the dark opening trio, and it eradicates the memory of the songbook reading of "Roll Over Beethoven." Maybe it's just because it really kicks the upbeat feeling into high gear after three consecutive dark tunes, but it's a blast. Likewise, Paul's gentle "Every Little Thing" might not be among his best even of the early days, but it's a charming little number that brighten up the place a bit.
Nevertheless, this is chiefly Lennon's baby, from his superb compositions to his somewhat unfortunate choices in covers. Dylan's influence adds a distinct Country & Western feel to the album (they never really go folk), but the gritty dissatisfaction with their predicament, and the ragged edge it created, make this the most rock 'n' roll album the Beatles ever made. It's also their most uneven, but in a sort of lovable way. It's the band pleading for a rest after so much work, a break they wouldn't get until they at last demanded it a few years later. For the moment, though, the ever-shifting sound of the band remains as fascinating as ever.