Sunday, April 24, 2011

Is 'Revolver' The Beatles best album?

Perhaps the most intriguing characteristic of the Beatles entire body of work is how rapidly they grew as artists in a relatively short amount of time. From when they began recording in 1962 through early 1965, almost all their songs dealt with love. Boy and girl meet. Boy loves girl. Girl loves boy. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Boy wishes he had a different girl. All the songs were simple variations of the same theme.

By early 1965, subtle influences began changing the band. Lyrically, John Lennon, George Harrison, and to a lesser extent Paul McCartney, each began following Bob Dylan's lead and started exploring deeper subject matter. Songs that followed like "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," "Nowhere Man," and "In My Life" still dealt with relationships. However, their lyrics now probed the subject matter in ways that more accurately reflected the complexity of those relationships. Simple love songs were now gone for good. Those three songs appeared on their late 1965 album Rubber Soul, which acted as the vessel that delivered the Beatles into the most creative phase of their career.

In 1966, the Beatles remained the unquestioned leaders of rock and roll. With their album Revolver, they decided to use that power to break the conventional boundaries of the current musical scene. As the subject matter of the album's songs reveals, band members sometime had different ideas about what it meant to break boundaries.

For Lennon, his excursion to new places led him into citizenship in Alice's Wonderland. Surrealism saturated his songs in such a complete way that the songs retain their original freshness and vitality more than 40 years later. Whether it was his boredom with making albums or his tendency to sometimes incorporate drugs into the creative process, Lennon's work on this album repeatedly travels into the cosmos in ways that are often bewildering. To the casual listener, a common response to these songs might be, "What the heck is this?"

Nowhere is this more obvious than on "Tomorrow Never Knows." With lyrics taken almost directly from the book The Psychedelic Experience, the song's musical arrangement mostly features guitars that were recorded and then played backward, accompanied by thumping that sounds like tribal drum beats. The result sounds like waves of electronic sound pounding a beach, while accompanied by Lennon's vocals that resemble a spiritual chant.

"I'm Only Sleeping" is an ode to dreaming the day away in bed, and "Dr. Robert" is a tribute of sorts to various Dr. Feelgoods who fulfilled the special needs of cultural icons. Though neither song is drenched in psychedelics like "Tomorrow Never Knows," they both represent a clear departure from Lennon's early songwriting. In both songs, it is like the listener can pull back his skull and peer deeply into his subconscious and ego. "And Your Bird Can Sing" is less successful than the other songs, but the surrealistic lyrics are a direct nod to the work of Dylan in the mid-1960s.

For McCartney, breaking boundaries did not necessarily include experimental studio wizardry. At that time, rock and roll still maintained second class status in the musical establishment's eyes. The establishment often maintained an attitude of unbridled condescension toward rock and roll. Cleverly, McCartney began integrating elements of the 'old world' and showed they could be used in a rock and roll context.

The previous year, McCartney began this musical migration when his song "Yesterday" included only him on acoustic guitar and a stringed quartet. No other Beatle played on it, and in a sense, it was the first Beatles solo recording. The song is one of the most recorded and commercially successful songs of all time. However, the song's big breakthrough was that McCartney showed how to use a classical musical approach in a rock and roll context.

On Revolver, he did it again. On "Eleanor Rigby" he was again accompanied by a classical group, which spun a somber musical arrangement around lyrics bemoaning the growing isolation of people. The result is chilling. Forty years after the fact, this may seem like a minor achievement, but this type of musical fusion was highly unusual for that time.

Other songs of his on the album are less adventurous but no less successful. "Good Day Sunshine" embraces the pleasure of spending a beautiful day sitting under a tree with your woman. The title of "Got To Get You Into My Life" is pretty self explanatory, but the chewy horn section that propels the song is outstanding. "Here, There and Everywhere" may be the prettiest ballad McCartney has ever written.

Though George Harrison often stood in the shadows of his two more heralded band mates, he continued to mold the band's sound on this album. The previous year he introduced the sitar to his band members, and it was included on the song "Norwegian Wood." Primarily associated with Indian music, the instrument was largely unknown to American and European audiences when the Beatles used it. The instrument made another appearance on this album on Harrison’s "Love You To."

Harrison's "Taxman" became one of his most well-known songs in which he lamented the impact that England's severe tax code had on his bank account. Ah, the problems of wealth. "I Want To Tell You" is a steady and straightforward rocker that delves into relationship problems.

The only top 10 hit from the album was the Lennon/McCartney composition "Yellow Submarine" with Ringo Starr on lead vocals. The song would be the springboard for an animated film three years later. The song is pretty silly in some respects, but it has the charm of a nursery rhyme.

The Beatles body of work is eclectic, and its impact on the world can not be overstated. Whatever musical limitations each member had, the four of them made up for it by perfectly complementing each other. Plus, they had the good sense to break up before they had a chance to fail. The audience was spared seeing them decline over time like the Rolling Stones and the Who did. This was one of the few times when the sum of all the parts added up to a whole.


Adam said...

Revolver is definitely amazing! I think Magical Mystery Tour is my favorite, but all Beatles albums are so awesome.

Anonymous said...

Well done. I'd have to say it's between Rubber Soul and Revolver for me; depends on the season of my life.

One note: "Nowhere Man" was John talking to himself about the drudgery of his life and encouraging himself to look on the bright side, not about relationships. "In My Life" was was an ode to his childhood. I can see where you get the relationships idea, but its definitely a stretch.