Thursday, October 8, 2009

The Beatles — Abbey Road

Picking one's favorite Beatles album is a fool's errand not only because sifting through the individual merits of each record falls just short of impossible but because whatever album you argue is best must essentially also fill the slot of "Greatest Album Ever Made." Sure, some people would choose Pet Sounds or one of Dylan's masterpieces, but the sheer weight of the Beatles' impact guarantees at least one of their albums in any legitimate top five (if you're Rolling Stone, who make some of the most laughable lists you'll ever read on any subject, you practically comprise the top 20 out of them). Well, Abbey Road is my pick. It is, to me, the best-sequenced, best-produced and all-around best album ever made.

Abbey Road trades in euphoria, a feeling that is all the more inspiring given the history leading up to it. The band turned to "the dark side" years earlier, and by the time of The Beatles the dominant tracks were full-on freak outs that showed a certain proclivity to violent protest even before Charles Manson irrevocably twisted the meaning of some of the songs forever. The Get Back sessions not only resulted in the first great dissolution of the band but the sort of tracks that proved it: the best songs (apart from the rocking title track) were valedictory ballads, and the worst confirmed that the band had lost whatever spark made them the undisputed kings of pop and rock for all time. Outside influences and infighting at last tore the group apart, so getting them all back together in a room, much less the same room for weeks to bang out another album must have been a herculean task, less "one more for the road" than "once more into the breach."

But reform they did, and the joy seeped into the very grooves of Abbey Road is nothing short of astonishing. Reportedly containing more three-part harmonies than any other Beatles album, Abbey Road stands as the perfect mix of the camaraderie and irrepressible pop of the band's early days with the beleaguered genius of the post-Rubber Soul era. You can see it in the album cover: after bickering so much that even the art reflected the tension in some way, the group at last appears together, without separation, in a group shot. Ironically, they've finally found something upon which they can all agree: it's time to leave.

Perhaps seeing the light at the end of the tunnel got everyone back on board and on friendly enough terms to work. George Martin returned when he was suitably convinced it all wouldn't go to hell again, and he offers up the finest work of his career, adding an extra layer of warmth to the already gorgeous recordings: "Here Comes the Sun," one of Harrison's two contributions, contains even more aural light than "Good Day Sunshine." And that can't compare to his finest contribution to the band, "Something." Unabashedly straightforward, "Something" nevertheless sounds nothing like the pledges of love that filled the grooves of the band's early albums. Instead, it acknowledges doubt and somehow makes a song in which the singer cannot describe his love, alluding to "something" about her, more poetic than the most expressive metaphor. Despite the renewed commitment to group interaction, Harrison might just steal the show.

Not that McCartney and Lennon slouch, of course. Lennon opens the album with "Come Together," the finest distillation of his anthemic hippie ideals. Its mid-tempo, riff-heavy structure made it ripe for Aerosmith to cover it without a shred of effort or differentiation, but don't let the combined overplay of both versions blind you to what a great song it is -- plus, some songs stay on rock radio for decades for a reason. His exploration with the heavier side of the spectrum continues with "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," his rolling cascade of early metal. Consisting of only 14 different words and the same chord progression, "I Want You" builds through repetition until the romantic harmonies morph into disturbing chants and lilting acoustic guitars give way to heavy distortion that reaches a fever pitch that threatens to rattle your teeth out of your skull and just stops in the middle of its endless arpeggios. I wish the song reached a logical conclusion, but there's no denying the jarring, bewildering effect it has. After such complex sonic landmarks as "A Day in the Life" and "Revolution 9," who would have guessed that one of Lennon's most daring numbers could be so minimal?

The album balances striking, darker numbers like that and the wrenching "Oh! Darling," a deconstruction of the band's typical love song wracked in pain and grief, with giddy bursts of pure, unadulterated inanity. Yes, both McCartney's "Maxwell's Silver Hammer" and Ringo's "Octopus's Garden" are inane and pointless, but I'd throw up these slices of the kind of nonsense that comes when the drug trip is a little too good with the cheap displays of emotion that most artists pass off as heartfelt. I don't have the slightest clue what McCartney is trying to say with "Maxwell," but damned if I don't cheerily sing along to the murderous exploits of a pure psychopath every time I spin it. Likewise, "Octopus's Garden," supposedly the result of a tidbit Ringo learned about nests octopi build that charmed him, confirms wholly the notion of Ringo as the dopey one, but it's a perfectly lovely piece of bubblegum and certainly his finest moment at the mic.

For all the brilliance in these tracks, side two leaps forward and ends the band's career with their most impressive sonic and musical accomplishment. Apart from "Here Comes the Sun," it features the multi-tracked "Because," in which the three harmony voices become nine. An ethereal take on the "Moonlight Sonata" played on the then-new Moog synthesizer, "Because" comes the closest to the feel of Pet Sounds out of all the band's efforts to mimic the Beach Boys. Following "Because," the band pulls together even as they cede the floor to McCartney and Martin. McCartney and Martin assembled some of the songs that never made it out of the Get Back sessions, and they threw them together into a bizarre suite that somehow brings out the best of the group in the truncated segments of unfinished songs.

It doesn't matter who wrote each of the individual songs that comprise the suite, as the band restructures the clips into a working whole: the bridge of "Carry That Weight" reprises "You Never Give Me Your Money," and the group originally recorded the rhythm tracks for "Polythene Pam" and "She Came in Through the Bathroom Window" as one piece. The suite contrasts instrumentation and style, but it subtly builds into a glorious burst of benediction, reaching its apex with the anthemic "Carry That Weight" and up to the solo breakdown of "The End" (everyone gets a solo, even Ringo!) and fading into a couplet that perfectly summarizes what the Beatles and the rest of the counterculture seemed to want out of the '60s: "And in the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make." Of course, the technical end of the album is the 24-second "Her Majesty," a giddy throwaway that, depending on my mood, either throws off the mood of what preceded it to the point that I stop the album without listening to it or I accept it for what it is: a demonstration that these kids -- none of them were even 30 by the time this came out, and only John and Ringo hit the big 3-0 when Let It Be finally rolled out of the vaults -- still had a bit of fun left in them after all these years.

It's safe to say that no band has ever recorded a farewell as complete and even forward-looking as the Beatles did with Abbey Road, and it's unlikely anyone will ever come close. In fact, the closest analogue that I can find for its hope and joy coming from such a dark personal period is Arcade Fire's Funeral, which was actually the result of three consecutive familial deaths. It's the only album where every track -- provided you take the suite as a whole -- is a perfect standalone, yet in order they clearly reveal a group strength and made-for-album format. In the years since its release, Abbey Road has become only more perfect: coming out in 1969 draws a line in the sand for the band's legacy.

After 7 years of perfecting, deconstructing, rebuilding, and starting the whole cycle over again and again, the band essentially ceased to exist on the eve of the next decade. Each decade since rock's inception in the '50s have had their representative, all of them mainstream hit-makers, who worked within the frame of pop but expanded it in fascinating ways, both musically and aesthetically. In the '50s, it was Elvis, the '70s Bowie. You could argue that it was Prince in the '80s or maybe, if you readjust your requisite level of popularity, Metallica. Radiohead muck it up somewhat, as they've obviously been the dominant musical force across two decades (show offs), but the point remains: these artists might not have been the best players of their time, but they were the perfect representatives of that time, and the Beatles were the only ones smart enough to quit while they were ahead (time will tell if and when Radiohead finally hits the wall -- let's hope it's a long time from now), and in doing so they ensured an untarnished legacy. The Fab Four of course went on to great solo success -- John and George in particular made music that could easily rank with the finest Beatles records -- but Abbey Road is the one album that, if forced to prove the group's collective and individual worth by some crazed madman wielding a gun, contains all you need to know about the band's genius.


  1. You missed Golden Slumbers!! I just bought a new mp3 player and have been listening to Abbey Road on rotation for the last week.

    I love the songs merging together like they do, but I had forgotten about Golden Slumbers - the passion and Paul's voice almost bring me to tears whenever I hear it.

    Thanks for the Beatles rewind. You can never have too many.... :D

  2. You're right, I did. I usually try not to talk about every single track when I discuss an album (I used to write album reviews all over the interwebs) because it can get boring, but I seems like I devoted time to every other song, and "Golden Slumbers is certainly a highlight of the suite.