Assessing The Beatles’ 2009 Studio Remasters (Part Six)

It was time for a change.  For three years, they had written and recorded variations of the same songs to a great deal of acclaim and financial success.  They knocked off these simple ditties in a remarkably short period of time in between their commitments to the concert stage and publicity tours, while also trying to enjoy life outside the music business.  Averaging two new studio albums a year, as well as additional material generated for singles, they made writing and recording look effortless even if they weren’t yet operating at their peak potential. 
But after meeting Bob Dylan in 1964, it was clear they needed to evolve.  With only limited studio time at their disposal, however, true advancement, the result of many hours of dedication and uninterrupted creativity, was just not possible.  By the autumn of 1965, the band was more eager than ever to grow as songwriters and musicians.  From October to November that year, they set out to make their best album yet without any distractions.
The result was Rubber Soul, an LP loaded with smarter lyrics, tighter harmonies, and traditionally moving arrangements now sprinkled with interesting new sounds and ideas.  Running just 35 minutes and 32 seconds, it’s a major improvement over their previous five LPs.   
The rollicking Drive My Car, the album’s opener, sets the tone immediately.  Paul McCartney and John Lennon are smitten suitors who fancy an aspiring actress, a cheeky tease who humours them by offering an opportunity to be her personal chauffeur.  The job doesn’t pay very well but they don’t mind.  They’re more interested in pursuing a romance (“Working for peanuts is all very fine/But I can show you a better time”).  Unfortunately, she doesn’t have any work for them to do (“I got no car and it’s breaking my heart”).  However, she likes them (“But I found a driver and that’s a start”).  In every chorus, while absolutely certain of her future in the limelight (“Yes, I’m going to be a star”), she also admits an attraction (“Baby, you can drive my car”) and offers faint hope for a relationship (“And maybe I’ll love you”).  A nice twist on one of the oldest metaphors for sex, it’s McCartney who does a good job playing lead guitar here and George Harrison who provides a solid bass foundation.  Ringo Starr’s lively drumming and McCartney’s piano fills add emotional texture.  And if that weren’t enough, there’s plenty of cowbell. 
Norwegian Wood is a deeply moving ballad greatly enhanced by Harrison’s sitar, an instrument that would play a major role in so many of their later tracks.  John Lennon delivers one of his finest vocal performances as he recounts with a bit of bemusement the time he tried to get laid with a hippie who had no desire to sleep with him.  (Despite the even temperament of his voice, you can feel the rage as he attacks the strings on his acoustic guitar.)  Despite being invited to spend the night with her (“She asked me to stay”) and patiently waiting for an awkward pause (“We talked until two/And then she said, ‘It’s time for bed'”), he has absolutely no shot with her (“She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh”).  The next morning, after what had to be an uncomfortable “sleep in the bath”, he’s abandoned.  Feeling humiliated, he torches her room (“So I lit a fire/Isn’t it good, Norwegian Wood?”).  A chilling, deadpan ending to a very pretty song. 
More humiliation is in store for Paul McCartney on the beautifullly arranged You Won’t See Me.  Desperate to get through on the phone to his elusive love, he’s fed up with the whole situation (“I have had enough”) even though he still loves her (“And I will lose my mind/If you won’t see me”).  By the end, she’s dumped him and he’s really feeling her absence (“Though the days are few/They’re filled with tears/And since I lost you/It feels like years”), so much so he repeats that final verse.  The longest song the band had recorded at that point (almost three and a half minutes), like Norwegian Wood, You Won’t See Me embraces the messy reality of troubled relationships in a more pronounced way than past efforts.  At this point, the band is more than willing to show the dark side of men, most especially their frustration with the women in their lives who aren’t immediately compliant to their needs which can lead to emotional breakdowns and terrible personal choices.  Just three years after Love Me Do, The Beatles were already abandoning simple romantic themes, cliches of a certain style they easily got away with because of their superb melodies, and replacing them with universal complexities.  Love really isn’t such an easy game to play after all, they’ve bitterly discovered.
In the tradition of I’m A Loser and Help!, John Lennon’s Nowhere Man is a brilliant breakthrough, a song with no “love”, “I” or “tears” in its lyric.  Feeling stuck and aimless, Lennon, in simple language, perfectly captures his state of mind during a troubled personal period despite standing outside the character he’s describing.  In a rare moment of humility, he even tries relating his depression to his devoted audience (“Isn’t he a bit like you and me?”).  Like You Won’t See Me, the backing vocals, consisting mainly of “la la la’s”, are a necessary ingredient to this emotional stew.  It’s neat to hear Lennon trying to cheer himself up and encourage a positive plan of action as he wallows in a misery of his own making.  I love how George Harrison’s empathetic solo ends with a surprising harmonic note.  Just a great song, all in all.  I regret underrating it all these years.
Speaking of personal breakthroughs, George Harrison offers two of his own.  With a fuzzy bass leading the charge, he puts a deceptive ex-lover in her place in Think For Yourself.  Maintaining the “trouble in paradise” theme common to many songs on Rubber Soul, he wants no part of a woman who he believes is setting him up for more failure.  That being said, he’s open to some kind of closure (“The future still looks good/And you’ve got time to rectify/All the things that you should”).  Ringo’s menu of crunchy maracas and energetic drumming (with a pace quickening tamborine making a last-minute cameo) nicely fuels the tension throughout.  If I Needed Someone, which features Harrison’s twangy 12-string Rickenbacker, is a hooky albeit coy love song.  Although lyrically inferior to Think For Yourself, it features lovely harmony vocals (which curiously drown out Harrison at various points) and an instantly catchy melody.  Two years after Don’t Bother Me, Harrison himself was advancing quickly as a burgeoning songwriter.
A precursor to All You Need Is Love, The Word is a straightforward attempt at a counterculture anthem.  With occasionally hissy maracas, staccato guitar work that darts in and out, and the piano, bass and drums working in tandem, the arrangement is extremely confident.  Sounding like gurus pitching a product you must embrace, The Word is an easy sell. 
In Michelle, Paul McCartney is in love with a French broad but he can’t quite communicate how he feels to her because she’s not bilingual.  The best he can do is compliment her beauty, note how “Michelle, ma belle” is a good combination of words (“These are words that go together well”) and hope the message gets through.  Ultimately, he’s determined to stick it out until they both find a way to communicate effectively.  The backing vocals really make all the difference here giving the song an old-fashioned feel.  The melancholia expressed in the acoustic melody and McCartney’s low-key guitar solos suit the words.
What Goes On is a true Beatles rarity, an album cut that credits three songwriters (Ringo Starr, Lennon & McCartney).  Another love-gone-wrong song, the lyrics are actually quite good.  Like Act Naturally and a number of the cuts from Beatles For Sale, it has a very distinct country/western flavour to it.  (The harmony vocals during the choruses nicely emphasize this.)  How appropriate, then, that Ringo gets to sing it.  He’s in his element here.
Another frustrating female is the subject of Lennon’s Girl.  Continuously sighing over his girlfriend’s rudeness and icy demeanour as the band woefully shuffles along to his sorrowful vocals, he nonetheless can’t quite let go of his attraction to her.  Famous for its cheeky use of the word “tit” in the background during the middle eight section, what shouldn’t be forgotten is how dark the overall lyric is, particularly the final verse which is stunning in its unvarnished bleakness.  The acoustic guitar playing here is excellent.  This is one of the most compelling melodies The Beatles ever devised.
Like What Goes On, I’m Looking Through You is more country than rock and roll, for the most part.  McCartney is humiliated all over again as he complains about the unwanted changes in his girlfriend’s personality.  Although somewhat vague at times about what she actually does that specifically bothers him, as the track progresses, control and respect are clearly revealed as key stumbling blocks to their mutual happiness.  (“You’re thinking of me/The same old way/You were above me/But not today”)  Deep cynicism has entered his lyricism in a particularly striking way (“Love has a nasty habit/Of disappearing overnight”).  The Night Before aside, this is usually John Lennon territory, an unexpected breakthrough for the bassist.  The music here is deceptively upbeat in its horse-like rhythm, but McCartney’s vocals are unmistakably bitter.  The song is quite a contrast from his tender, easygoing balladry.  Furthermore, where in the past, he was doing the heartbreaking (for the most part), that’s no longer the case on Rubber Soul.  He’s not taking it very well, either.
Featuring the greatest George Martin piano solo ever, In My Life is a tremendous second half highlight, despite being one of the more overrated songs in the band’s catalogue.  John Lennon is in a reflective mood about the important people and special locations that molded him when he was younger as he realizes how deeply in love he is with his current girlfriend.  He’s so smitten with her that his former loves matter less now that he’s in this happy relationship (“And these memories lose their meaning/When I think of love as something new”).  Is it one of the greatest songs ever?  Despite popping up time and time again on those kinds of “best of” lists, I would argue in the negative.  Simply put, The Beatles created far better tracks than this, especially in their latter years.  That being said, In My Life is still very good.  Lennon’s vocal is warm and vulnerable, his autobiographical lyrics are sweetly honest and I love the off-beat use of the guitars and drums. 
Although the album reflects more conflict and darker subject matter, there’s one song that could’ve easily fit on any of their earlier releases.  (It was actually an outtake from Help!)  That would be Wait, a more traditional sounding number that features a more subtle use of a volume pedal, a device previously used on I Need You.  John Lennon and Paul McCartney sing about a bad boy eager to make amends with a former flame (“You ought to know/That I’ve been good/As good as I can be”).  He’s so reformed he offers a reasonable proposal upon his return (“…if your heart breaks/Don’t wait/Turn me away/And if your heart’s strong/Hold on/I won’t delay”).  Throw in a typically catchy hook and you have another decent sing-along on your hands, even though the song is reminiscent of It Won’t Be Long.
If the last verse of Girl wasn’t disturbing enough for you, how about the entirety of Run For Your Life?  Rubber Soul’s concluding track is pure vitriol as John Lennon’s “jealous mind” leads him to make unwarranted threats against his likely terrified girlfriend.  (“Well, I’d rather see you dead, little girl/Then to be with another man”)  Seething in his mysogyny, Lennon is blunt and deadly serious as well as being riddled with deep, penetrating insecurities.  It’s a startling lyric, one of the best Lennon and McCartney ever wrote because of its utter lack of sugarcoated varnish.  It captures the raw intensity of an abuser in such stark, unapologetic terms it’s no wonder Lennon distanced himself from it for years after its release.  (Too revealing, perhaps?)  The country-sounding arrangement which mixes acoustic and twangy electric guitars adds to the creep factor.  Easily the most surprising song in the band’s catalogue, Run For Your Life is undeniably brilliant.
Overall, the album sounds terrific.  The instrumentation and vocals are quite clear as the integrity of the original stereo mixes have been preserved.  Although I liked the 1987 CD, this 2009 update has been beautifully remastered.  There shouldn’t be any complaints about it.
Early pressings are enhanced with a brief documentary only accessible by computer.  (PC users need at least Windows 2000 and QuickTime to view it.  Check the back cover for more information.)  Brief voiceover commentary by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and producer George Martin are sprinkled throughout this short presentation which features cool black and white photography and a bit of footage from one of the band’s mid-60s promo clips.  Lennon does a funny George Martin impression as he explains how the producer would present a musical idea that would get them all jazzed.  Ringo believes marijuana was one of the major factors in their musical evolution at this point in time.  (Dig his blue granny glasses.)  McCartney comments on how The Beatles tried to sound different on every album in order to lose their original Mersey beat sound.  And there’s some funny in-studio behind the scenes tomfoolery, as well.  Overall, this is one of the better docs in the reissue series despite a lack of new details.  But, as always, the audio is glitchy, so be warned.
The liner notes add some pictures not included in the 1987 package and offers the standard Historical and Recording Notes sections.  Newbies will be enlightened, longtime fans won’t learn anything new.
Coming just four months after Help!, Rubber Soul ended the first half of the 1960s with the band inching that much closer to greatness.  It wouldn’t be long before they would achieve it outright.
Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, February 6, 2010
12:18 a.m. 
Published in: on February 6, 2010 at 12:19 am  Leave a Comment  

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