Thursday, November 05, 2009

Album project: Rubber Soul

The Beatles, Rubber Soul (1965): The Beatles emerged at a time when the shelf life of pop music acts was usually measured in months - if a group was particularly good and/or lucky, they might hang around for a couple of years. The Fab Four were not only determined to remain at the top of the charts for as long as they could, but they were also striving to break free of the pop song conventions that limited them to simple boy-girl love songs. They were impressed by Bob Dylan's sweeping command of lyrical subjects, and also took note of how British Invasion contemporaries like The Rolling Stones and The Who were finding success with sounds that were closer to their roots in American blues and R&B. The Beatles responded to these challenges with Rubber Soul, the group's first fully mature work and a great artistic leap forward that paved the way for other rock artists beginning to regard their output as more than collections of simple pop songs.

Once again, The Beatles had to meet a deadline in order to have new product ready for the holiday season. During the recording of Rubber Soul, though, the group was able to settle down in the studio somewhat to work on their material, as opposed to the practice of recent albums that had been recorded on the fly during breaks from touring and movie-making. This enabled The Beatles to experiment with various sound ideas and studio tricks, such as George Harrison's work on sitar on "Norwegian Wood" (Harrison had picked up the sitar while filming Help!) and George Martin's piano solo on "In My Life", which was recorded at half-speed and then sped up to sound like a harpsichord. Then there were less-sophisticated tricks, such as Ringo Starr keeping time by tapping a matchbook on "I'm Looking Through You".

"Drive My Car" opens Rubber Soul with the acerbic wit that had become a Beatles trademark. The next track, "Norwegian Wood", is a John Lennon tour de force. Lennon's moodiness, his melancholy at living his life in the fishbowl of fame, had seeped into some of the tracks on Beatles For Sale and Help!. On Rubber Soul, it bursts into the open, shaped by the lessons he had learned from Dylan. "Norwegian Wood" shows that John has matured as a storyteller, an oblique tale of a furtive sexual encounter and/or marijuana use, with a magnificent assist from Harrison's sitar. John said, "Norwegian Wood" is my song completely. It was about an affair I was having. I was very careful and paranoid because I didn't want my wife, Cyn, to know that there really was something going on outside of the household. I'd always had some kind of affairs going on, so I was trying to be sophisticated in writing about an affair ... but in such a smoke-screen way that you couldn't tell. But I can't remember any specific woman it had to do with."

John's wistful remembrances were at the heart of "In My Life", while his troubled self-image becomes fully apparent on "Nowhere Man". Sweetened by McCartney and Harrison's harmonies, the song became a US hit. "The Word" is an ode to brotherly love, and "Run For Your Life", the disc's closer, is a particularly mean-spirited example of Lennon's jealous-guy pose. In later years John would say that "Run For Your Life" is the song he most regretted writing.

Some of Rubber Soul's highlights are found in the great strides made by George Harrison as a musician and songwriter. He contributes a ringing, folk-influenced solo on "Nowhere Man", burbling guitar parts on "Michelle", and gives drive to rockers like "You Won't See Me" and "Run For Your Life". He also makes his strongest contributions as a writer to date, the cheery "If I Needed Someone" and the self-explanatory "Think For Yourself". Ringo Starr also gets part of a songwriting credit, with Lennon and McCartney on the country-rocker "What Goes On", which Ringo also sings.

Paul McCartney's contributions to Rubber Soul were a bit more subdued. Tracks like "I'm Looking Through You" ("white-boy blues", as Steve Earle describes it) and "You Won't See Me" provide much of the soul of the LP's title. Paul's best-known moment here is "Michelle", where in his trademark romantic fashion he pours his heart out to a French girl who can't understand his words of love. "Michelle" won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 1967 and has since become one of McCartney's most recognized standards. (The video, although it has a vintage feel, actually is from Paul's Wings period, but it's still good.)

Once again there are differences in the US version, leaving off four tracks that would later make it to Yesterday and Today, while tacking on two cuts left over from the UK version of Help! Some of The Beatles' teenybopper fans didn't quite know what to make of the more complex Rubber Soul at first, and although the LP was an instant million-seller like the previous ones, it did cause a bit of confusion among the Fab Four's young fan base that was used to love songs. But Rubber Soul's remarkable depth expanded the group's appeal to older, more sophisticated audiences, and its stature has continued to grow over time. It is today regarded justifiably by rock fans and critics alike as one of the greatest albums of all time.

With the release of Rubber Soul came one of The Beatles' most remarkable singles yet, the double A-sided "We Can Work It Out"/"Day Tripper". The former is a classic example of Lennon and McCartney's collaborative style. John described it: "You've got Paul writing, 'We can work it out / We can work it out'—real optimistic, y'know, and me, impatient: 'Life is very short, and there's no time / For fussing and fighting, my friend.'" "Day Tripper" is on another level entirely. The Lennon-composed guitar hook is one of their instantly-recognized triumphs. Although Lennon wrote most of the song, McCartney sings lead, doubled by Lennon in the last verse, as well as contributing a deep bass groove. Harrison comes through with a sunny guitar break that is reinforced by the "ah-ah-ahhs" of the bridge. Part California, part blue-eyed soul, part British hard rock, "Day Tripper" is a remarkable three-minute blast that wraps up all The Beatles' influences in a neat three-minute package and delivers a knockout punch.

Following Rubber Soul's release, The Beatles spent the first three months of 1966 taking a much-needed break from three years of non-stop touring and recording. They spent much of that time smoking pot and experimenting with their new psychedelic discovery, LSD. Their minds expanded and altered by regular drug use, the Fab Four set out to explore the musical frontiers opened by the success of Rubber Soul.