Saturday, September 7, 2013

Isn't It Good?

Original Facebook post here.
Today’s formative-album replay: Rubber Soul. If the mythology of the perfect pop album didn’t start with The Beatles, it might as well have. It’s not just that I can think of precious few LP-record-length pop statements that predate the Fab Four (Sinatra’s Only the Lonely? Sun Sessions? Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music?). What’s crucial is that The Beatles upped the game so precipitously, apotheosized the pop-album-as-coherent-work-of-art so handily, that any prior models are academic, just as countless succeeding exemplars have fallen short or missed the point.

For what made Beatles records cohere, as a revisit to my favorite of their albums reminded me, were not grand plans hatched by a single compositional mastermind a la Pete Townshend or Brian Wilson. No, what made Beatles’ albums hang together--and this is true even of an ostensible “concept album” like the justly overrated Sgt. Pepper’s--was The Beatles themselves, their band-bred hive mind, the creative tension not only between the two main songwriters but also among the no-slouch personalities of all the creators in the room (including, of course, George Martin). They were great pop-album makers because they were consummate pop songsmiths, forgers of three- and four-minute pieces big and strong enough to stand up in bunches together and reflect and reverberate off each other in an integral way, fully formed characters in some larger drama (or comedy). What made The Beatles’ albums special wasn’t that they were secretly writing operas or cantatas or stage musicals in pop drag; they were instead doing something that felt genuinely new, elevating the pop-song-collection form into something greater than the sum of its already great individual parts; and this achievement seems inextricably linked to their collective spirit, their bandness.

What I find most arresting about Rubber Soul is that I can hear each of the band’s constituent elements clearly, sharply, as they reorder and reorient themselves into a gleaming new unit after the previous few years’ disorienting experience of stratospheric stardom, a period when their songs seemed in danger of turning into ads for themselves (indeed, two of their previous three records were film soundtracks, and another, the intriguing Beatles for Sale, was a sort of grab bag). As they later did with their white album, on Rubber Soul they paved their new path in part by looking backward, stripping things back to the bare roots, even if they weren’t, strictly speaking, their own roots. While the opening folk-guitar pluck and country bop of “I’ve Just Seen a Face”* is straight-up skiffle that would have sounded at home on a Liverpool streetcorner in the late 1950s, the album's next salvo, the slithery earworm “Norwegian Wood,” is a brilliant piece of pseudo-Renaissance folk primitivism. It’s not until the third track, “You Won’t See Me,” that we hear an electric guitar or a full drum kit, let alone the double-tracked vocals that had become, to a somewhat confining degree, The Beatles’ sound. But things don’t settle into the familiar; indeed, each song on the first side has a distinctive sonic signature, from the fuzz bass leer of “Think for Yourself” to the jabbing blues bite and rattlesnake hiss of “The Word,” and finally the sleek, ardent “Michelle,” whose two-guitar intro recalls “Seen a Face,” except that we’ve crossed the Channel to France.

If the second side isn’t as fine overall (I’ve always heard “Girl” as Lennon’s competitive response to “Michelle,” as if he said, “I can write a gypsy song, too, but mine will be darker,” only it’s not as good), it does have one of McCartney's definitive sunbursts, "I'm Looking Through You," and it does lead to one of the band’s highest points ever, as if the whole record, indeed their whole career to date, had been leading up to it: You can almost hear curtains part on a wide open stage to make room for the big-hearted, bittersweet soar of “In My Life.” This time in particular, I heard this great anti-nostalgist anthem as a full-band performance, each player’s personal expression fusing into a single larger statement (the classical-piano solo being Martin’s contribution, of course), and each in perfect, unshowy proportion to the other. The song sounds roomy, slightly grand, without sounding grandiose or sacrificing the record’s folky intimacy.

Rubber Soul has nowhere to go after that climax, and the last two songs, “Wait” and “Run for Your Life,” end the collection pleading and seething, respectively. Future Beatles records would have better endings--indeed, great cappers would almost become their specialty--but for most of its running time, this is the record on which I hear the songcraft of the Greatest Band Ever at its clearest, simplest, and most endearing.

*I swear by the American-release track order.

Cinco Paul Is Sgt. Pepper's "justly overrated" or "justly considered overrated"? I personally think it deserves all the plaudits.
Rob Weinert-Kendt It deserves most, I agree, but it's not their dearest record.
Rob Weinert-Kendt By "justly overrated" I meant to suggest that I understand its significance, I get what the fuss is about, I love it to bits...but it is still a bit overrated.
Rob Weinert-Kendt I mean, what I regularly rediscover about "Rubber Soul" is that I overrate it a bit...but what I do love about it, which I tried to explain, is what still makes it my favorite.
Shawn Pogatchnik I award Rubber Soul five Pauls out of a possible five.
Drew Eshelman Hey Rob, Rubber Soul was one of the albums we played during my first psychedelic experience in 1966... It had an indelible effect on me.
David Tobocman I had the epiphany recently that what made The Beatles cohere so well was Ringo's unique drumming. I think I was mentally comparing Paul solo to Beatles stuff. Good points here, Rob. Excellent, ambitious article.
David Tobocman Also my favorite, btw, but I think the American Rubber Soul is far superior.
Rob Weinert-Kendt Exactly, the American song order is much better.

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