Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Through the Revolving Door

I don't subscribe to everything that Tim Riley says in his book, Tell Me Why.  But when he came right out and took the firm stance that the best album in The Beatles' catalog is Revolver, and not, contrary to popular opinion, Sgt. Pepper, I mentally saluted the man for having the courage to say it.

He got me thinking.  What makes Revolver such a great album goes beyond, I think, the mere meat and bones of each individual song.  They are great songs, individually, no question about it.  And there is a substantial amount of "maturity" that shows on these songs: the guitar solo in "Taxman" breaks free of typical blues-based scales and heads East for a more Indian sound; "I'm Only Sleeping" features a backwards guitar solo; both "She Said She Said" and "And Your Bird Can Sing" showcase some gritty guitar tones that foreshadow the classic rock sound of the 70s, and move further away from the clean "twang" of the early 60s sound; "Love You To" introduces a full range of Indian instrumentation, and takes a daring risk by sticking with a title that makes no grammatical sense.

Those are the songs, individually.  Taken as a whole, however, they come together (right now) to tell a more complicated story that holds up very well.  The album is not just a collection of songs on display; the album is a complete work of art, with individual messages that also become fragments of a larger mosaic.  And I think Revolver does this in a way that Sgt. Pepper doesn't.

The album is neatly bookended by "Taxman" and "Tomorrow Never Knows", two songs that form the abstract outline of the album's story: all is vanity and a chasing of the wind, because we're only working for someone else anyway, and the only true meaning in life is "the meaning of within," which is to say, "love is all."  The rest of the songs on the album only do their part to support and affirm this message.

Right out of the gate, The Beatles back up the delivery truck right to the listener's front door, and start unloading entire skids of Hard, Cold Reality.  "Taxman" and "Eleanor Rigby" form a musical one-two punch: death and taxes are the only guarantees.  Already, only two songs into the album, we are a long, long, long way from mop-tops and woo-yeahs.

After this rather shocking wake-up call, "I'm Only Sleeping" offers one solution to the hard edges of life: you can always ignore it, or find a way out through escapism.  Yawn, blink, shrug it off.  There are taxes to be paid and lonely people in the world, but "don't shake me" now, and "don't spoil my day," because "after all, I'm only sleeping."  It's a valid proposal.  Some people choose to throw themselves into life and treat it like a battle; it's kill or be killed.  For John, however, this approach holds no appeal: those are the "crazy" people who are always "running everywhere at such a speed, until they find there's no need."

Running parallel to this particular form of the escapist dream is another kind of escape.  In "Doctor Robert", the exit path is lined with drugs of whatever kind: pain-killers, acid, pot, or any other drug of choice.  The good doctor is ready to offer a drink from his "special cup" in order to provide a short-cut to the desired end: "feeling fine."  Riley draws attention to the use of the church organ and choir-boy sound in the bridge; it seems as though both medicine and religion get a bit of a nose-tweaking here, by being implicitly linked together in the music.

"Love You To" makes its own contribution to the discussion, which is both affirming and cautious.  The fact is unavoidable, "A lifetime is so short," and "a new one can't be bought," and so our time is most rewardingly invested in acts of love: "make love all day long, make love singing songs."  Still, there is the parting warning: "There's people standing round who'll screw you in the ground."  Once again, reality is acknowledged, but hope is not despaired of.

As if to capitalize on this central point, that above all else there is the pursuit of love, the next track on the album, "Here, There, and Everywhere", is nothing less than a solemn hymn in honor of love's delights.  After everything that has come before it, this song is a refreshing departure from the darker corners of reality.  Paul's soothing voice reminds the listener that love is just as good as you'd think it could be, and despite the nightmare of death and taxes, the truth remains that "love never dies."

This song is only one part of a trilogy of love songs found on this album.  "Good Day Sunshine" and "Got to Get You into My Life" round out the picture, celebrating the joy and bliss to be found in sharing the adventure of life with a partner.  In love, "I've got something I can laugh about," and permanence and stability become the antidote to the rest of life's fickle temporalities: "I want you to hear me say we'll be together every day."

This trilogy of love-in-song, however, is neatly balanced by a counter-trilogy that keeps the listener from drifting too far into naive, ignorant bliss.  Love is central, love is good, love is the answer, yes; but it is not to be taken lightly, or treated flippantly, and even love comes with its own set of challenges.  In the trilogy of "For No One", "I Want to Tell You", and "And Your Bird Can Sing", we come face-to-face with the potential pitfalls of the human relationship: being misunderstood ("you don't get me"), finding it hard to be heard ("you can't hear me"), being taken for granted ("she no longer needs you"), dealing with a head "filled with things to say" and struggling to "speak my mind and tell you."

Finally, there is "Yellow Submarine".  Paul has said on more than one occasion that this tune was intentionally written as a children's sing-along song, and as such, it serves a specific purpose within the album's storyline.  Life is a balance; there is joy and there is sorrow; there is loneliness and there is star-crossed love; there is yawning indifference or drug-induced flight, and there is responsible engagement.  In the midst of it all, "Yellow Submarine" introduces the concept of retaining a child-like innocence and wonder; a little bit of fantasy here and there isn't a bad thing.  It keeps things light and playful.  If everything is given its proper place, and balance is retained, then "every one of us has all we need."

As a concept album, I think Revolver unintentionally accomplishes what Pepper intentionally attempted, but failed to do.  Pepper doesn't hold together as tightly as Revolver.  With its flashy costumes and circus trips and newspaper taxis, Pepper tries to fly off into a fantasy world, but it never stays there; it keeps crashing back into the world of runaways and mind-numbing suburban life and news headlines.

I'm not saying Pepper is a bad album.  The songs are fantastic, as songs.  But as a collective whole, it just doesn't present a coherent story in the way that Revolver does.


An afterthought: this is, admittedly, a lot of analysis to choke down.  It might even be an exercise in reading too much between the lines.  So do yourself a favor and indulge in a little treat - God knows you deserve it.  Set aside an hour, preferably a relaxing hour of the night; get your copy of Revolver, in whatever format you enjoy (bonus points, however, if your format is vinyl); mix yourself a scotch and coke, or some other similar adult beverage; absolutely, smoke 'em if you got 'em; set the volume low enough that your ears don't bleed, but loud enough that you can still hear the clicks of the plastic guitar picks against the nickel-plated strings.

And listen to the music.

Really, really listen.

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