Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Art of the Album: The Beatles – The Beatles (White Album), Disc 1

White Album.jpg What You Need to Know: In 1968, The Beatles went to India seeking spiritual enlightenment. Whether they found any is up for debate, but the trip was an extremely productive one for the band – equipped mostly with acoustic guitars, they composed not only most of the songs heard on their eponymous double album, but also a fair amount of material that they used to launch their solo careers.

Most bands would have stressed about following up the massively successful Sgt. Pepper, but The Beatles instead completely ignored their previous LP, releasing a sprawling, back-to-basics album that had little (if any) resemblance to their previous effort.

The Songs You’ve Heard: Like many of their albums, the first disc of The Beatles contains no singles. Still, many of the songs here get a lot of exposure – Paul’s tongue-in-cheek “Back In The USSR” is a great rocker that kicks things off in grand style, and John’s gentler “Dear Prudence” is another of my favorites of his. Paul’s bassline and Ringo’s drumming (especially near the end) really knock this one out of the park.

Some of the songs here feature only a Beatle and an acoustic guitar, and the stripped-down arrangements make for songs that are more moving than anything on Pepper. Paul’s “Blackbird” is accompanied only by the sound of his feet tapping on the floor of the recording studio – simple as it is, it completely overshadows most of his other White Album pieces. John’s gentle, beautiful “Julia,” written for the mother he lost in childhood, is one of his best, and completely bucks the “John the rocker” label that is so frequently applied to him.

George’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is another gem of his, the first of his released compositions that shows how far he had come as a songwriter, and his “Piggies” is some solid social commentary.

Those are the songs I know you’ve heard, but you’ve probably also been exposed to the Frankenstein of a song that is “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and the amiable stumble that is Ringo’s first song, “Don’t Pass Me By.”

The Songs You Haven’t: The size of the White Album gives the group a lot more room for levity and for extreme oddities - “Wild Honey Pie” and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” fall into the latter category, “Rocky Raccoon” and “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” in the former. They may not be the best songs the group ever recorded, but they’re very different from anything they did, and give The Beatles a distinct character not heard in the meticulous Pepper or the aerodynamic Revolver.

Other highlights are Paul’s “I Will,” another simple, melodic tune in the vein of “Blackbird,” and John’s intensely self-referential “Glass Onion,” another willfully obfuscating attempt to fuck with the people who liked reading things into The Beatles’ material.

Why I Like It: Chris said a lot about the double album yesterday that rings true – always ambitious, many times interesting, rarely flawless.

A conversation that almost all Beatles buffs eventually get around to is “what songs would you leave off the White Album?” The interesting thing, and one of The Beatles’ triumphs, is that people often agree on some, but can never agree on all. Songs that one person finds essential are songs that others abhor. There’s just so much here, all of it strong in different ways, that two people can rarely reach a mutually satisfying agreement.

I, for one, love the White Album not in spite of its sprawling scope, but because of it. You and I may not love the same songs, but everybody loves something, and that’s no small achievement.

Desert Island Tracks:Dear Prudence,” “Julia,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps