Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Art of the Album: The Beatles – Abbey Road

abbey roadWhat You Need to Know: Abbey Road was recorded and released before Let It Be hit store shelves, making Let It Be The Beatles’ last released album – I typically put Abbey Road last because it was recorded last and because it’s a hell of a way to go out – much more satisfying than the often frustrating Let It Be.

Producer George Martin insisted the band do this album “like they used to,” which meant working together and letting him call some creative shots. The album definitely benefits from a little guidance – it takes the (mostly) back-to-basics sound of the band’s post-Pepper recordings and channels it into a more cohesive whole compared to the sprawl of The Beatles and the disjointedness of Let It Be. Engineer Geoff Emerick (who left during the White Album sessions) is even back, meaning that this is a return to form in more ways than one.

The Songs You’ve Heard: “Come Together” and “Something” are this album’s two singles, and they’re as strong as ever – the first is John’s, and combines a driving bassline from Paul, Ringo’s rock-solid backbeat and some typically obscure lyrics to form an instant classic. “Something” is George’s, the first and only song of his to make the A-side of a Beatles single. This didn’t stop Ol’ Blue Eyes from calling it his favorite Lennon/McCartney tune in later years.

Though not a single, George’s “Here Comes The Sun” also gets a fair amount of radio play, and rightfully so. The distinctive tinkling of the acoustic guitar is instantly recognizable, and it stands as one of Abbey Road’s (and Harrison’s) best songs.

The Songs You Haven’t: Not everything here is great. The soppy “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” was correctly identified by Lennon as “more of Paul’s granny shit” – John refused to participate in the recording. I like “Oh! Darling” well enough, though it sounds sort of like a Let It Be castoff to me.

My favorite song on the album that maybe you haven’t heard is John’s “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” a sparsely-lyric’d eight-minute song that’s mostly coda. The bluesy performances here are fantastic, and its abrupt end is still one of the most jarring in rock.

The real meat of this album, though, is the medley that spans most of the album’s second half.

It amazed me – I was literally amazed – that there are people out there with little to no knowledge of the Abbey Road medley. Amazed. It’s a sixteen-minute stitched-together pastiche of unfinished Lennon/McCartney songs that, individually, are no great shakes, but when sequenced together are unforgettable, from “You Never Give Me Your Money” to the aptly-titled “The End.” A suitable ending for such a band.

Why I Like It: When I wrote about Please Please Me, I mentioned the album’s “infectious energy” as a high point. That energy is all but gone on Abbey Road, replaced by meticulous near-overproduction and a sense of slightly forced camaraderie – for example, the three-part harmonies of “Because” are tight, but lose the breezy effortlessness of their debut or of With The Beatles; John sings harmony with himself on “Come Together” despite having two other able singers in the studio with him at the time.

For all of that, we see on Abbey Road a group of very talented musicians working together to be greater than the sum of its parts. That notion is especially true of the medley, where nearly all of the individual songs (John’s additions, especially – let it never be said that I only rag on Paul) are throwaways at best. They managed to work together (with a little help from their friends in the recording booth, of course) to create a fitting farewell, an amiable record that may not have seemed possible in the light of the Let It Be sessions. It’s not their best album, but it somehow remains one of their most essential.

The four Beatles never entered a studio together again after this, which is probably for the best. For all of its imperfections, I can scarcely think of a better finale than Abbey Road.

Desert Island Tracks: “Here Comes The Sun,” “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” Abbey Road medley (part one, part two)