I used to think this was nothing more than a transitional album from when the Beatles made albums to when the Beatles made albums (the difference, if you didn’t know, is like an anthology of short stories versus a novel), slightly irked about the critical praise (ie. Rolling Stone placing this as the third best Beatles album and the fifth best album of all time). I’m sure a month ago, I would’ve handed this a B or B+, praised the hell out of the opening block of songs, and went about my usual Beatles business of pointing out everything that’s wrong with the album. But let’s do the opposite today.
Let’s not focus so much on the Beatles typical hippie-ness, like subjecting us to listening to John Lennon take a huge drag from his joint in between the hook of “Girl” (they’d get more subtle about their drug intake onRevolver).
Let’s not focus so much on how the opening couplet of “Michelle” (“Michelle, ma belle / These are words that go together well”) is overly precious.
Let’s not focus on how badly (read: not at all) the verses and choruses turn into one another on “Wait,” and let’s definitely not focus on how the hook of that song is just a bunch of catchy cadences – lazy.
Let’s not focus on how “The Word” uses the same trick.
Let’s not focus on the lyrics of “Run For Your Life” at all, which are certainly dumber than – say – the lyrics of “Under My Thumb,” which at least justified the misogyny by suggesting the woman in question deserved it; let’s not focus on that because a) John Lennon has disowned them anyway and b) the way John Lennon sings “That’s the end-ah, little girl” makes me actually kind of like the song
(though the Kinks will take the opening measure, from chord, strum pattern and tempo, and make a better song out of it on 1966’s “Dandy”).
And let’s certainly not talk about “What Goes On”‘s melody which is dull, dull, dull (something you can’t say about other Ringo-led songs, including the more-hated “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus’s Garden” because of their subject matter) (also it doesn’t help this one’s cause that it keeps reminding me that there’s an amazing Velvet Underground song with the same name).
Let’s not focus on any of that.
Let’s focus instead on the good stuff. I mean, “Nowhere Man,” with its three-part harmonies, and “I’m Looking Through You,” with its ringing electric guitar and hand-clapping fever, are instant contacts. And ignoring the preciousness of the opening lines, “Michelle” is lovely. This is true from the few French words I can make out (“tres bien ensemble”; translation: “very good together”), the doo-wop harmonies (which are also the best part of the following “What Goes On”), the way the descending acoustic guitar helps stress the pertinent syllables of the iambs, “I will say the only words that I know that you understand” and finally to the way Paul McCartney sings the “I love you”’s and “I need you”’s. But these are still not even the best the album has to offer! “In My Life” has one of the best melodies by one of the most melodically-inclined bands there ever was. John Lennon himself sells it, breaking up the words of the title with such tender care. Meanwhile, Ringo Starr provides a nice rhythm. Not a complex one, mind you, but certainly one that is varied enough to buoy your interest until he switches and speeds it up. Broadly speaking, there’s plenty of fun percussion of this album as a whole. Love the piano solo, too, courtesy of George Martin.
Meanwhile, “Drive My Car” was one of the first few Beatles songs I truly loved (a little about me, I wasn’t consciously aware of listening to my first Beatles song until 2009, when I was 18 years old, but that’s a story for when I get to reviewing “The White Album” – my first Beatles experience). In the long list of great Beatles’ record openers, “Drive My Car” rarely ever gets mentioned, but that’s not to say “Drive My Car” isn’t worthy enough of opening a Beatles record because it certainly is. In the opening measures, we have an electrifying electric guitar riff that kicks things off, one of Paul McCartney’s more noticeable and kinetic basslines, and a thunderous drum roll that leads us into cymbal smash before the vocals start and Ringo switches to cowbells (like I said, plenty of fun percussion on this album as a whole). Dig the piano hook that fills in the gaps during the choruses, and don’t be afraid to sing along and Maggie Simpson to “Beep beep, beep beep, YEAH!”
But still, not even the album’s best. “You Won’t See Me” – the only song here that’s over 3 minutes long – has undeniably better lyrics, great phrasing to bolster the great melody (“When I call – you up / Your line’s engaged…”), the album’s best vocal harmonies. Maybe the band’s best ever in the lattermost department, actually.
But my favorite song is none of those. It’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).” Famously, it’s John Lennon singing about an affair but keeping it as vague as possible so his then-wife, Cynthia Lennon, wouldn’t find out. But it’s so vague that unless you’re privy to the story, you’d never know; with the excellent sitar coloring (their best song that features that album, and well-known as being the first rock band incorporating that instrument) and seemingly innocent lyrics (“She showed me her room / Isn’t it good, Norwegian wood”; “She told me to sit anywhere / … I noticed there wasn’t a chair”; “I told her I didn’t [work in the morning] / And crawled off to sleep in the bath”; the only sexually charged line might – might – be “I sat on the rug, biding my time / Drinking her wine”), you’d think it was just a really weird drug trip between John Lennon and a mysterious woman. And the ending, where Lennon burns her place down, comes out of nowhere (“That escalated quickly,” you might say), and nothing regarding the acoustic guitars or sitar has changed, you don’t really notice until after the fact.
It could’ve worked just fine with only those instruments, but the band throws in some light bass and sleighbells (like I said, plenty of – ah, fuck it) for good and welcome measure; “I once had a girl / Or should I say, she once had me” is a great opening couplet. Also, better than the way John Lennon sings “end” on “Run For Your Life” or “my life” on “In My Life” is the way he sings the first word of every verse here is the way he sings “And” in the last verse of the song. It’s just the way he holds it, harmonizing with the bass and sitar; so much weight on what’s probably the most insignificant word in the English language. One of their best psychedelic songs; one of the few where they show and don’t tell.
Considering this, the two Bob Dylan albums and the two Byrds albums, 1965 was a great year for psychedelic folk, wasn’t it?