Wednesday, June 25, 2008

180. The Beatles - Abbey Road (1969)

Now we conclude our journey through the back catalog of a little-known '60s band I've recently discovered.

This is it kids, The Beatles' final album. They gave it a good six year run, but it seems the years of hard work with little acclaim or monetary compensation had finally taken their toll on this little band.

To their credit, they go out with what I believe is their finest achievement. Unlike their previous album, The Beatles, there's a unified feel, not only in the performances, but in the sound of the songs themselves - bluesy and American - despite the fact that all four members were composing individually.

For all of its appeal, Abbey Road is actually quite a strange album. No other Beatles album - not even The Beatles - contains such a mixture of standout classics and obscure curiosities. In the former category, we have two songs that have nearly become standards. They're also the first two songs on the album. One is John Lennon's Come Together, a sinister, nonsensical ditty that sounds like blues from the future. The other is Something, sweet, sexy, orchestrated, and the first time - after years of being third banana - that George Harrison gets the better of Lennon/McCartney as a songwriter. Even the bridge ("you're asking me will my love grow") is a mini-masterpiece.

In a twist of status quo, Paul's compositions are among the more obscure and obtuse. Maxwell's Silver Hammer, a cheery-sounding tale of a remorseless serial killer, falls squarely in the disturbing-if-you-listen-closely file. The passionate Oh Darling is a R & B torch ballad exercise that gives McCartney a chance to show off his impressive singing/emoting.

Next is Ringo Starr's second and final foray into composing, Octopus's Garden. It's whimsical and sweet, built on harmony. The lyrics concern a secret place beneath the sea, and the narrator's wish to go where "no one's there to tell us what to do." One could read it as simple and childlike, a sort of sequel to Yellow Submarine. But it also appears to address Ringo's attitude toward the band, a wish to be away from the turmoil. By all accounts The Beatles were in the thick of many problems in 1969, both interpersonal and business-related. As easy-going as Ringo was, I'm sure he was still affected mightily.

I Want You follows. It's a sort of alternate reality version of Oh Darling, as if Lennon and McCartney both decided to write songs on the same theme. It's similarly passionate and simple, but heavier, with a repetitive guitar lick that builds and builds as the song ends. If you were listening to this on vinyl, here ends side one, abruptly, almost angrily.

And here's where The Beatles have a happy accident. On CD, the dark, violent end of I Want You immediately gives way to the bright ringing first notes of Here Comes the Sun. It's a supremely satisfying transition. The song itself is a second Harrison triumph, full of clarity, optimism, and pop goodness.

Here Comes the Sun is actually the last proper song on the album, as the rest of side 2 is an 18-minute tapestry of unfinished Lennon/McCartney song bits. With any other band, this would probably be a tedious prospect, but credit the strength of the songwriters and the ingenuity of producer George Martin with turning it instead into a thrilling exercise.

The suite kicks off with Because, a gorgeous tune in three part harmony, hearkening back to This Boy. That segues into You Never Give Me Your Money, which appears to address the band's financial problems. The song itself contains a couple of movements; it starts off as a vocal showcase, then morphs into a McCartney blues number. Sun King is next, and John seems to be gently parodying his bandmate Harrison when he sings "Here comes the sun king." Later, he sings in what sounds like pidgin Italian.

Things rock up with a couple of odd character sketches, Mean Mr.Mustard and Polythene Pam before Paul's oddly modern She Came In Through The Bathroom Window. It might as well be the blueprint for today's indie pop. Golden Slumbers and Carry That Weight take us from orchestral rumination into a joyful sing along.

Finally, we have The End. Following an excitable jammy instrumental performance, the instruments fall out, a singular piano line comes in and the boys harmonize portentously on the lines: "And in the end, the love you take / Is equal to the love you make." Very few of us, Royal Tenenbaum excluded, get to write our own epitaph. The Beatles got that chance, and they made the best of it.

The four lads from Liverpool may not have become world famous, but they did manage one last feat. They invented the bonus track, that bane of many a music-lover's existence. In this case, it's a charming little bit of doggerel from Paul McCartney tacked on accidentally to the end of the record. Her Majesty finds Paul declaring both his drunkeness and his love for the queen. To think, he became a Sir anyway.

Grade: A+
Fave Song: Octopus's Garden


My hmphs said...

In my opinion, the best Beatles album. The medley, the perfect encore in "The End," and you're right - nothing is more welcome and refreshing than to hear "Here Comes the Sun" after the cacophony of "I Want You (She's So Heavy)."

Any major dude with half a heart said...

In case you didn't see: