Monday, November 16, 2009

The Art of the Album: The Beatles - Revolver

beatles-revolver What You Need to Know: Released some eight months after Rubber Soul, Revolver is the album that signaled The Beatles’ retreat from the stage into the studio.

Exasperated by fans who screamed too loudly to hear their music and live equipment that couldn’t reproduce the sounds they were making, the band would never play a paid concert again after their last tour in 1966. Though Revolver was released a week before the tour commenced, none of its songs were played live by the band (listen to this well-meaning live rendition of then-current single “Paperback Writer” from that tour and tell me, without lying, that you can’t understand why).

The Songs You’ve Heard: “Taxman” starts the album off in grand style with its sharp riff and blistering Paul McCartney-delivered guitar solo – it’s a leap forward for George Harrison, and this is his first Beatle composition that can truly be considered essential.

The haunting, bleak lyrics of “Eleanor Rigby” show that Paul is really coming into his own as a songwriter, much as John did on Rubber Soul, and the George Martin-supplied string arrangement is a testament to just how much the band’s producer contributed to its sound. On a more optimistic note, we have the amiable, cartoony thump of “Yellow Submarine,” one of the first instances of a song that Ringo’s friendly-but-limited vocal delivery actively enhances – it wouldn’t be the same song with John or Paul on lead.

Moving on down the tracklist, we’ve got John’s druggy “I’m Only Sleeping,” made all the better by George’s then-innovative backwards guitar solo. After that is George’s Indian-tinged “Love You To” and twin John-rockers “She Said She Said” and “And Your Bird Can Sing,” both of which are notable for their great guitar riffs – so long, “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” this is how The Beatles rock now.

Showing us how The Beatles now approach ballads is Paul’s “For No One,” one of his best and most understated. The lyrics, about the ending of a loveless relationship, further illustrate how far McCartney has come since the days of “Can’t Buy Me Love.”

Everything comes to a close with the psychedelic tapestry of “Tomorrow Never Knows” - for best results, put on a really good pair of headphones and just let this one wash over you a couple of times.

The Songs You Haven’t: This section is increasingly a misnomer as we get further into The Beatles’ career, and in this case I will actively judge you for not having heard everything on Revolver.

Still, it’s entirely possible that you’ve made it through life without hearing the appropriately sunny harmonies of Paul’s optimistic “Good Day Sunshine,” or John’s ode to his dealer, “Doctor Robert.” Maybe you haven’t heard George’s slightly off-kilter “I Want To Tell You.”

Maybe. But why not?

Why I Like It: Revolver is one of the few things in life, like Star Trek and gummi candy, that I love without reservation, no matter what – I can find negative things to say about most other Beatles albums (you’ll see that tomorrow), but of Revolver I have no meaningful criticism. It’s the single best example of the Beatles’ strengths converging – the excellent musicianship, the experimental tendencies, the intricate vocal harmonies, and – perhaps especially – the collaborative songwriting.

On no other album will the band so effectively leverage the strengths of all its members to the degree seen here – there is no “Taxman” without Paul’s out-of-control bass playing in the middle eight, there is no “Tomorrow Never Knows” without Ringo’s insistent and quixotic drumming, there is no “Eleanor Rigby” without the soaring-yet-sad three-part harmonies. They would almost do it again on Sgt. Pepper and later on Abbey Road, but this is the last time that the band was truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Desert Island Tracks:Taxman,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “For No One