Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Beatles — Revolver

Well, here we are at last: the Citizen Kane of pop albums. Look at any list of the greatest album of all time and if Revolver isn't in the number-one slot, it will almost certainly be in the top five. Rubber Soul cut the tether holding the band to their old sound, allowing them to fully explore whatever new sounds caught their fancy. And they certainly put forth the effort: after releasing 2 albums a year for their first three years, pumping out singles and records at a frenzied pace, the band spent 300 hours' worth of studio time working on Revolver. That was a large amount for any group in the mid-'60s, but for the Beatles it was simply staggering.

Keeping up with the Joneses fueled much of the band's frantic output up to that point, from the desire to ape Dylan to the artistic symbiosis they formed with the rising Byrds and Beach Boys. Their musical absorption didn't by any means cease, but where Fab Four had a way of taking other music -- be it Motown or Indian classical -- and working it into their own sound, now they had the time to refine it, to not simply put it in a melting pot but to deconstruct it and piece everything back together in groundbreaking ways.

Harrison, whose growing interest in Indian music led him to make the acquaintance of Ravi Shankar, took both sitar and spiritual advice from the master, setting him off in the direction that would eventually lead to his embracing of Krishna. As such, when he continues the political bent of "Think For Yourself" on the opening number "Taxman," it comes less from a place of youthful rebellion than a disdain for worldly distractions. Whatever the true political leaning, however, "Taxman" is the ideal example of the band's full maturation: Harrison's lyrics are among the best to appear on any Beatles song, before or since, and McCartney makes impeccable contribution on both bass and guitar (that amazing solo is actually his).

(Nowadays, some conservatives, or just someone looking to be cheeky, like to play this song as a protest against the IRS. What they don't understand is that the line "If 5% should appear to small/Be thankful I don't take it all" is literal: the Beatles qualified for Britain's highest tax bracket (then 83%)as well as a few other fees that could be placed on the rich, bringing their level potentially to 95%. I'd like to see these morons marching on Washington to do Glenn Beck's bidding -- the staggering majority of whom actually paid less taxes this year -- try to wrap their dimwit heads around that figure and call President Obama a socialist.)

That's not the only excellent Harrison contribution, mind you. With only a few chances here and there on previous albums to prove his potential, the cat's finally out of the bag: including "Taxman," he gets three songwriting credits, and they're all amazing. "For You To" is his first serious incorporation of Indian music into the band's sound outside of vague influence or a sitar riff, and it remains his best use of the sitar in the Beatles' canon. Even his more traditional "I Want to Tell You" utilizes Indian structures in his description of the inability to communicate what you want to say to someone and the feeling of frustration it causes. For a guy who previously contributed a few good tunes, Harrison leaps light years ahead both in lyrical and compositional ability.

And if Harrison improved this much, just imagine how great Lennon and McCartney are. Lennon was no stranger to dark, even unsettling, lyrics, but "She Said She Said" is downright vicious; technically based on dialogue he had with Peter Fonda while both were tripping on acid, by changing the pronoun of the person speaking from "he" to "she" it becomes easily applicable to his bleak romanticism. No longer is he threatening some innocent woman with his pathological jealousy, now the two are on equal ground, trapped in a mutually destructive relationship that brings out the worst in the other. Also fueled by his drug use is "Doctor Robert," a possible ode to Lennon's dealer and probably the most accessible, conventional song on the album after "Taxman."

To his credit, McCartney also brought a deep sense of melancholy. "Here, There and Everywhere" is one of the band's most complex numbers, contrasting joyful verses with a moody bridge and multi-tracking Paul's vocals to great effect. McCartney claims that he was influenced by the Beach Boys, but this is pure Paul, right up there with "Yesterday" or "Michelle." He contributes another beautiful number in the moving "For No One," complete with a fantastic French horn solo. McCartney matured in writing and musical imagination (Martin tended to be the one to figure out how to pull off what the lads thought up but couldn't perform) more quickly than his mates, and the maturity he displays on the record is nothing short of breathtaking.

However, if the influence of drugs was beginning to seep in and inform some dark visions, it must also come with the euphoria of drug use. Lennon pulls himself out of his increased paranoia for two jubilant, utterly nonsensical little ditties. "And Your Bird Can Sing" is killer fun, but the one we all remember is "Yellow Submarine." By tossing this trippy children's song to Ringo, it forever cemented the drummer's image as the loopy goof of the group lyrically as well as visually, but damn it he really is a perfect fit for the tune. McCartney's swinging "Got to Get You Into My Life" is a finger-snapping joy, with its smooth saxophone back-up. Then there is the pure, unrestrained elation of "Good Day Sunshine." With only McCartney and Ringo playing instruments (though Martin contributes a solo piano), it's a masterpiece of bubbly harmonies and good vibes, aided immeasurably by Martin's lush, warm production. I'm not a happy person by nature, but I've never failed to smile while listening to this number.

The cornerstones of the album, though, are two incredibly moody numbers by McCartney and Lennon. "Eleanor Rigby," Paul's best track, took the out-there sophistication of the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds and managed to compress it into pure baroque pop without losing any musicianship or complexity, essentially jumpstarting the genre that would shape the music of Love and Scott Walker and (decades later) the Arcade Fire and the Decemberists. It is also deeply, profoundly haunting: a story of isolation and emptiness in the modern world, McCartney is backed only by a perfectly arranged string octet arranged to serve as basically a double quartet and played without vibrato. It's a landmark moment in the cross between art music and mainstream sound, and one of the most haunting songs ever recorded by a pop artist. In the UK, the label released it as a single with "Yellow Submarine" in a double A-side; I'd like to think that, somehow, the music industry for one fleeting moment really understood what this album was all about and built the single accordingly, instead of simply looking to ensure the thing hit #1 in the charts -- sure enough, in America, where the two were separating, the bouncy "Yellow Submarine" hit number 2 while "Rigby" only reached 11.

Even more important to the band's burgeoning exploration of art pop is Lennon's closing track, "Tomorrow Never Knows." The Beatles were never particularly strong with their closing numbers, devoting the slot on the early albums in the mad attempt to recapture the wild success of "Twist and Shout." But Lennon uses the final track of their most inventive album to date to push the boundaries past all previous identifiable marks. Featuring excerpts from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Lennon's lyrics are vague, abstract, haunting and existential, made all the more haunting by the experimentation Lennon and Martin try in the studio. Tape loops, drone, chanting and other effects add to the song's psychedelia, and if the Byrds' "Eight Miles High" or the Beatles' own Rubber Soul hadn't yet broken psychedelic rock, this sure did the trick.

Upon Revolver's release, the Beatles announced a retirement from touring, saying that the increased studio effects of the album, which pointed in their new direction, were too complicated for just the four of them to perform live -- besides "Tomorrow Never Knows," the band also injected some impressive techniques in songs like "I'm Only Sleeping," which features not only an altered rhythm guitar line but a solo recorded and played backwards. The more obvious reason, of course, was simple fatigue. A press conference from 1966, available on Youtube, shows the band at their wits' end with journalists; a press conference for a band these days typically comes with softball questions such as "Do you enjoy being in _____?" and "What was your favorite aspect of working with so-and-so?," but you can clearly sense a mutual and deep level of animosity between the band and the reporters, most of whom don't have a clue which member is which and don't care either way. I've heard people criticize the band for ceasing to tour, believing, as those raised during or after the '70s tend to do, that a group is to be solely judged on its live performances. Of course, certain bands do define themselves on the stage, from James Brown to Bruce Springsteen to Pearl Jam, but it's such a lazy criterion that simply equates to a band's greatness being measured by whether an audience feels it got its money worth at a show, not innovation and originality. Retreating to the studio, combined with Martin quitting EMI to strike out as an independent, gave the band their first sense of freedom since their club days, and they used it to push pop music firmly into the realm of true art.

For all its individual accomplishments, Revolver is even more than the sum of its parts. Ringo's always under-appreciated talents mature to handle the myriad of challenges placed upon him by the mounting musical complexity, while George Martin becomes truly inseparable from the band's artistic success. Now, the band could move in any direction they pleased, clearly favoring individual exploration instead of the usual collaborative effort -- the song listing displays the lead vocalist of each number beside the song title. Even the album cover announces a break from the uniformity of the group: Klaus Voorman's cover sketch warps the Fab Four's features slightly, and fills the gaps between each of the four with cut-out photographs of the band, signifying that the group wasn't just here for our amusement anymore. They were artists now, looking for answers. If the photos in between the spaces of the sketch are any indication, they were, for the moment, looking inside themselves.

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