Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Beatles — Rubber Soul

Almost every album in the Beatles' discography displays experimentation, from testing new studio techniques to incorporating new musical influences as quickly as they were popping up in contemporary music. Their first album set down a new blueprint for pop music, mixing the high voltage intensity of rock with the pitch-perfect harmonies of doo-wop and R&B. As they progressed, the influence of Country & Western, Bob Dylan, even classical music were added in small doses to the band's winning formula, ever so subtly testing the boundaries that they themselves established.

If we are meant to judge that exploration and innovation as the proof of the Beatles' immortality and the reason that no other band will ever come close to having the same impact on the world, then Rubber Soul must be viewed as their most important album. The band drew a barely perceptible line of demarcation with the slight imitation of Dylan in A Hard Day's Night and began injecting eclecticism in earnest over their next two albums, but for the most part the band kept their exploration firmly under wraps of their standard pop sound in order not to frighten the label.

That all changed with Rubber Soul. Roger McGuinn of the Byrds attributed his trademark use of the 12-string Rickenbacker to seeing George Harrison use it in A Hard Day's Night. By the time the Beatles went back into the studio in late 1965 to bang out their sixth straight LP in 3 years, they'd heard not only the explosion of hard R&B British rock bands but the sound of the Byrds' version of "Mr. Tambourine Man" and Dylan himself putting out his greatest work, "Like a Rolling Stone." Now the Beatles had carte blanche to pursue their infatuation with Dylan, and the result is one of the biggest stylistic leaps in musical history.

The first number, "Drive My Car," gives unsuspecting listeners to prepare themselves. A fantastic and amusing pop number, it's one of the band's funnier songs as well as one of their catchiest. Then the album leads into "Norwegian Wood," another comic number. The differences between the two, however, are astounding: "Norwegian Wood" starts with a gentle acoustic lick, only for a sitar to pick up the line. A slight Indian influence -- though perhaps one only visible in retrospect -- informed the drone-like guitar part of "Ticket to Ride," but here Harrison, who'd been really turned onto Indian classical music by Byrds guitarist David Crosby, actually brings an Indian instrument into the mix. The comedy in Lennon's lyrics also has a much darker edge than the lighthearted "Drive My Car," detailing a man who sets a woman's house ablaze for leading him on.

That perversion of the typical love song that informed almost every single Beatles tune penned up to that point pops up all over the album, with both Lennon and, surprisingly, McCartney contributing bleaker lyrics. Lennon cautiously approaches a relationship in "Girl," because the girl in question isn't quite so bright and wonderful as all the ones in their previous love songs, and the joint Lennon/McCartney work "Wait" outlines the anxieties of being away from a loved one. His closer "Run For Your Life" recalls his equally unsettling "You Can't Do That," only now the male is actively threatening the woman. When John does speak about love in a positive manner, he does so in "The Word," which hints more at his future political leanings than syrupy pop. Here, he speaks of love in vague obscurities as a means of overcoming obstacles and strife, preaching, "Say the word and you'll be free."

It is McCartney, though, who offers up the most searing portraits of failing relationships. Stuck in one of his own with then-girlfriend Jane Asher, McCartney's lyrics at last cast himself in a position of vulnerability, regret and anger. Normally, the contrasting moods of a Beatles tune signified the differing input from the melodic, upbeat Paul and the depressive, rocking John, but McCartney steers this through the ironic harmonies and shifting musical moods of "You Won't See Me" all by himself (and on their longest track to date, no less, even if it only stretches to the 3:30 mark). "I'm Looking Through You" is positively scorching, with lines like "I’m looking through you, you’re not the same” and its jagged blasts of organ. One might find fault with his sudden distrust stemming from his own rocky relationship, allowing him to take out his frustrations on an unnamed, universal stand-in for women, but I find it incredibly interesting to see him open up beyond his boyish sense of romantic infallibility.

Even McCartney's more traditional, happier contribution is inventive; he sings some of the lyrics in "Michelle" in French, and the tune as a whole screams to be accepted as a pop standard alongside his previous masterpiece "Yesterday." On an album that shows the band growing in musical sophistication to an almost impossible degree, "Michelle" is further proof of McCartney's impressive musical maturation and his ability to twist far-ranging musical styles (the song boasts a Greek guitar line amidst its French feel) into something the band can pull of naturally.

Adding to their new-found complexity and (at least in Paul's case) confession are songs that completely divorce themselves from any romantic meaning. "Nowhere Man" takes all those feelings of alienation and paranoia that informed Lennon's darker romantic numbers and reconfigured them to address a universal sense of solitude. It's not outright political, but the man in question is clearly John, and he's still not sure where he fits in within the world. He also pens the loving ode to childhood "In My Life." Originally planned as an autobiographical poem of Lennon's own youth, he decided that the lyrics were too literal and crafted a more generalized, beautiful number, romantic not in sexual sentiment but in its original meaning of aesthetic empathy. (Lennon later went back to his own childhood to pen "Strawberry Fields Forever.") This deeply personal lyricism certainly owes to Dylan, but now Lennon feels confident enough not to ape Bob vocally or musically; he knows he's good enough to go it his own. Hell, even young Harrison jumps ahead with the album: "Think For Yourself," propelled by Paul's great fuzz bass guitar, is the band's first outright political number, while "If I Needed Someone" displays a clear influence from his mates the Byrds.

Rubber Soul remains the band's most crucial record for several reasons. First, it marked the start of the Beatles' third era, the slight psychedelia of "Norwegian Wood" and the proto-hippie anthem "The Word" (not to mention its slightly warped cover) pointing toward their future direction even as the overall folk-rock tone closed the chapter on that facet of the band's evolution. More importantly, it kicked off the Beatles' most rewarding period of musical synergy with the bands around them: the Bryds, who'd been inspired by the Beatles, inspired this album. In turn, Rubber Soul influenced Brian Wilson in the creation of Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds, then, informed Sgt. Pepper. If pop music is about timing, not talent, one almost has to believe that the Beatles were simply destined to be, for the gold run kicked off here for the group and their peers makes the fabled planet alignment seem unremarkable in comparison. There isn't a single weak track on the album despite what Lennon might have said later, and at last the group could mine the sort of personal, abstract lyrical field that Dylan opened up without trying to sound exactly like him. In each of these numbers is the birth of the '60s as we perceive it today; you say you want a revolution? Here it is.

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