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172. The Beatles: The Beatles (1968)

You know the famous avant garde artist Yoko Ono, right? Everyone knows her. Well, did you know her husband had a band? I've been slowly working my way through reviews of all of their albums. Check it out:

I guess it's indicative of the slightly amateurish nature of this band that they'd wait until their 10th outing to do a self-titled album. It's ironic too. The title would seem to indicate a completely unified effort, when in reality it's exactly the opposite.

As I've been slogging through The Beatles' catalog, I've been keeping track of the changing band dynamics. John Lennon clearly dominated their early efforts, with Paul McCartney taking over on Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour. The Beatles, however, shows the band with no clear leader. Instead, it's four men co-existing, each contributing their own insular ideas.

There wasn't much self-editing going on, in how many tunes were included on the double album or in the songs themselves. It's easily the loosest, rawest album of The Beatles' career. If Sgt. Pepper is a fussed over Renaissance oil painting, The Beatles is a sketchbook of graphite doodles. And they aren't all pictures of the same thing, that's for sure! The album is as diverse as it gets, from '20s and '50s homages to country parodies to grating, pain-filled songs to achingly sweet ones and a lot in between.

That's not to say that there aren't patterns to be found. Though no longer dominant, McCartney was clearly feeling his oats. He contributes no less than 6 standout classics: The proto-Billy Joel reggae of Ob-La-Di-Ob-La-Da, the beautiful pastoral simplicity of Blackbird and Mother Nature's Son, the swooning I Will, and the tongue-in-cheek rockers Birthday and Back in the U.S.S.R. The latter is perhaps my favorite McCartney song ever, with charming musical allusions to both Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys, plus Cold War commentary.

Lennon was similarly inspired, but in a completely different direction. His standouts are memorable, but not nearly as cheery or straightforward, containing a sense of dread, alienation, menace and concern. I'm So Tired starts off sounding suitably fatigued and then builds into tortured desperation. Is it about being separated from Yoko? Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey has a frantic rhythm and an untamed vocal from John not heard since Twist and Shout. Yer Blues takes the titular genre to the end of the line as far as I'm concerned ("Yes I'm lonely/wanna die"). Glass Onion has a Motown beat and self-referencing lyrics including the revelatory line: "The walrus was Paul." Revolution 1 is intriguing, but a bit slow. One wishes they would rock it up a bit. Finally, Happiness Is A Warm Gun is a genuine reflection of the times, pairing the violence that erupted across America in '68 with Peanuts "happiness is a warm puppy" mania that had swept the nation the same year. The song itself presents the same contradictions, sounding earthy and druggy, modern and classic all at once.

It's nearly impossible to capture the breadth of this album without going on for much too long. Paul and John trade off strange story songs with The Ongoing Story of Bungalow Bill and Rocky Racoon, Paul recreates the '20s with Honey Pie and John wastes precious wax with Revolution #9, nothing but a creepy, noisy experiment. George Harrison and Ringo Starr also get in on the act. George's contributions are a bit thin, save the gorgeous While My Guitar Gently Weeps, which isn't really as deep as you might think (sample lyric: "I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping."). Ringo steps up as a composer for the first time with the appropriately-titled Don't Pass Me By. Like Ringo himself, the song is pleasant and charming.

It's worth pointing out that the contrast in Lennon and McCartney's styles doesn't always work how one might expect. As I've stated before the generally-held popular belief is that Paul wrote the sunny melodic songs and John wrote the dark rhythmic ones. While it holds true the majority of the time, there are strong exceptions. Two of the album's heaviest songs, Helter Skelter and Why Don't We Do It in the Road are courtesy of McCartney. The former inspired Charles Manson, the latter is as frankly sexual as pop music gets; R.Kelly probably wishes he'd written it. Likewise, Lennon contributes two of the most melodic and and sweet songs on the record: Dear Prudence, a plea to Mia Farrow's sister to enjoy herself, and Julia, a tribute to his dead mother.

These Beatles were full of surprises, and none bigger than the fact of how far their music had come in 5 years, from polished pop to art rock headphone music to this brazen, messy display of talent.

Grade: B+
Fave Songs: Back in the U.S.S.R. and Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except For Me and My Monkey

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