Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Art of the Album: The Beatles – Let It Be

let-it-be What You Need to Know: Following the often-fractious sessions for The Beatles, Paul McCartney decided that what the band really needed to get its mojo back was to return to live performance. The original concept for the album, then called Get Back, was that the band would rehearse a batch of new material and then premiere it to a live audience while simultaneously cutting the album – a live album, but of previously unheard material. And, to kill even more birds with one stone, they would film the sessions and put it all together into a movie showing how an album is made.

Because of leftover touring-related resentment among some members of the band, the plan to have a huge public performance of this material fell through, and it all unraveled from there. The band was uncomfortable being filmed. The film crew worked different hours than they normally preferred to work. The band's decision to record all songs with no overdubs further strained relations with producer George Martin and protracted the sessions needlessly, leaving them with piles of tape. Yoko Ono was still hanging around all the damn time. By the end, the entire project was shelved and the band recorded and released Abbey Road before anyone came back to Get Back.

Eventually, a film was cobbled together and released to fulfill The Beatles’ contractual obligations (a DVD release has been blocked by surviving Beatles Ringo and Paul, fearing “damage to the brand”), and Phil “Hookersbane” Spector was brought in to sift through the tapes and knock together an album for release in 1970 in the wake of the band's as-of-yet-unofficial late-1969 breakup. And here we are.

The Songs You’ve Heard: “Let It Be,” “Get Back,” and “The Long and Winding Road” are our singles this time around – the first is one of Paul’s best latter-day ballads, matched only by his later “Maybe I’m Amazed,” and the second is a driving rocker with vocals that I wish I could replicate convincingly in Beatles Rock Band sessions. I have nothing good to say about “The Long and Winding Road,” an overly sentimental piece made more saccharine by Phil Spector’s addition of strings and a choir.

Chances are good that you also know “Across the Universe,” if only because of the dumb movie of the same name. I love this song, but not this version of it – like “Winding Road,” Spector coats it in so many layers of production that it strips the beautiful simplicity it has in other versions. It’s an amazing song, but it’s not at its best here.

The Songs You Haven’t: “Dig a Pony.” “Dig a Pony” “Dig a Pony.” Listen to this song. Just listen to it. It’s got a rock solid opening riff, and a promising first word, a drawn out “I,” followed by “dig a pony.” From there, it’s a short car trip down Ridiculous Lane to the foothills of the Ludicrous Mountains, nestled comfortably between the Preposterous Plains and the Forest of Absurdity. What I’m saying is the lyrics are weird. I didn’t realize how much I liked it until Rob and Craig heard it for the first time and laughed for the next three minutes.

George turns in “I Me Mine” and “For You Blue,” which are solid but not his best. Consider that “All Things Must Pass” was, um, passed over for these sessions and think of what might have been. Also, the extraneous noodling (“Maggie Mae,” “Dig It”) is safely skipped.

The pick of the remaining tracks is “Two of Us,” a tender duet between John and Paul and one of their best vocal harmonies. Harmony becomes rarer and rarer as The Beatles’ catalogue progresses (symbolic, perhaps?), so it’s nice to hear that they can still do it even if they’re nowhere near the harmonic heights of With the Beatles or Rubber Soul.

“One After 909” is a throwback to the group’s pre-Beatlemania days, one that they tried to record during sessions for one of their early singles but didn’t have time to work on. Like quite a few of their early numbers, it’s not fantastic, but the energy level is enough to sustain it.

Why I Like It: Let It Be is without a doubt The Beatles’ most difficult album. The loose, jam-band feel lends itself well to some of the rockier numbers - “I’ve Got a Feeling” and “One After 909” are both fun songs, for example – but as a whole it’s not a terribly cohesive or distinctive album. The music suffers lyrically, as well - “Dig a Pony” is not the carefully calculated nonsense of “I Am the Walrus.” It’s just straight up nonsense. Much of the rest of it is a bit of a throwback to their early days, Songs About Girls.

This one’s mostly fascinating because of the story behind it, and also because four guys who were all very much on each others’ nerves could still make some really outstanding music.

Your extra credit assignment for Let It Be is 2003’s Let It Be… Naked, a version of the album stripped of the Phil Spector overdubs at Sir Paul’s urging . By and large, it’s exactly the same album with a little more polish and a reorganized tracklist. “The Long and Winding Road” is still a sticky-sweet bit of fluff, though it is more listenable this way – the song that benefits most from this treatment is actually John’s “Across the Universe,” and the restoration of his “Don’t Let Me Down” doesn’t hurt anything either.

Desert Island Tracks:Two of Us,” “Let It Be,” “Dig A Pony