Did you know Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?! It's true. I've recently unearthed all of this early band's work and have undertaken reviewing each of their albums.
The haircuts on that album cover say it all, really. Just as the photo finds all four band members in an awkward state between their "Beatle haircuts" and the hippieish longer hair that was to come, so too does the music on this album represent the group's transition into hairier musical territory.
That is to say, Rubber Soul is mostly full of the pop perfection the group had become known for, but it also shows signs of the band stretching out. Once just content to be structurally innovative, now The Beatles' songs were becoming lyrically, instrumentally and vocally experimental as well.
Lyrically, John Lennon and Paul McCartney were pushing the boundries of theme, if not in the greater pop music world, at least by their own standards. First is twist-ending opener Drive My Car, McCartney's extended metaphor of sexual politics in which feature a woman hiring a chauffeur before she gets a car. Lennon's Nowhere Man is one of the band's first songs to not feature romance as its subject matter. Instead, it's a portrait of someone who is letting the world pass him by, perhaps willingly.
Instrumentally, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) is the clear standout, thanks to the use of an Indian string instrument called a sitar. The lyrics are also unconventional, telling a true, specific, double entendre-filled tale of a one-night stand that never quite gets off the ground. John's love of wordplay and wry sense of humor shine out.
Vocally, Girl features a sharp sucked-in breath after the title phrase is uttered. It's arresting on good speakers, and replicates the sound of inhaling, something the band was reportedly doing a lot of around this time. It also features a "dee-dee-dee-dee" back-up chorus that is part-Motown, part psychedelic.
The rest of the album is more conventional, but on many songs, it's hard to shake the feeling that instead of writing the earnest, straight-ahead pop songs of their early days, The Beatles were instead creating an ironic approximation of their own sound.
Witness the "oh-la-la-la's" on You Won't See Me, or In My Life, John's transparent (and heartfelt) attempt to replicate Paul's solo triumph on Yesterday. The Word (another Lennon gem) is playful and bright, and a million miles away from the dour sentiments on Beatles For Sale and Help!
What Goes On is the requisite Ringo showcase, featuring not only his lead vocal, but also his first writing credit (along with Lennon and McCartney). While lyrically dark and tortured, it has a rockabilly strut and a sunny performance. I don't know if Ringo could pull off a sad song if he tried. George Harrison also throws in two more songs, the standout being the harmony-rich If I Needed Someone. The nonchalant nature of the title and lyric crack me up every time.
Almost nothing on Rubber Soul is completely straightforward.
Take a listen to the closer, Run For Your Life, with the lyrics "I'd rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man" and "you better run for your life if you can little girl." Maybe this was another lyrical conceit, with Lennon portraying the possessive, abusive boyfriend, but it's served up with no ironic distance and thus it's hard to make a case that Lennon didn't mean what he was singing. Considering that, by many accounts, cheated on his wife prodigiously, it's also a bit of a glass house situation.
That disturbing misstep aside - all transitional phases are unfortunately marked by some awkwardness - Rubber Soul found the boys in great mainstream form. It's definitely one of the band's most spirited and happiest efforts. It was also the last time The Beatles were mostly the band you expected them to be. The transition was nearly complete.
Fave Song: The Word