Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Rubber Soul - The Beatles - album review

For a long time, it was blithely stated that "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" was the greatest Beatles album. However, reason eventually prevailed, and that particular accolade was transferred to "Revolver". It was then predicted that the consensus of critical opinion would move backwards in time again, to identify 1965's "Rubber Soul" as their finest record. That process, correctly in my opinion, has never quite materialised, but "Rubber Soul" remains an important album for several reasons.

John Lennon I think once said that this was where the contemporary influences (by which I presume he meant Bob Dylan, folk-rock and 60s soul) started profoundly affecting the Beatles' work. These influences were arguably manifesting themselves earlier, but on "Rubber Soul" they have been subsumed maturely and naturally into the framework of the group's overall sound and dynamic.

This is certainly a more "mature" record than "Help!".  The latter indisputably contains some great songs (the title track, "Ticket To Ride", "Yesterday", "You've Got To Hide Your Love Away"), but much of the rest is shallow by the Beatles' standards. Of course, certain non-musical "lifestyle" factors had been at work since 1964, and it could be that on "Rubber Soul" the band had finally worked out how to best channel and harness these to generate creative energy and focus.
It almost goes without saying that the lyrical content was growing more experimental and varied. By late 1965 even the "love songs" display an enhanced worldliness and sophistication. It would take further spiritual awakenings and the introduction of other stimuli, before the full flowering of the "Revolver" period would emerge. That said, The Beatles were already exhibiting that uncanny tendency to be in tune with the way in which the socio-cultural wind was blowing, without being seen to "force the issue". Songs such as "The Word" are evidence of this.

There was also a sense that this album marked the next phase of the group's evolution, Beatlemania as such having reached its zenith on the preceding American tour. On "Rubber Soul", The Beatles exude the confidence of people who have begun to master the studio, whereas on the previous records they sound as though they are still chasing something. Psychologically, they are already entering the post-touring mentality and ethos, beginning to expand their horizons and explore new territory.
I'm not sure whether this album has historically been perceived as a "Lennon" album.  The songs which have lingered longest in the popular consciousness ("Norwegian Wood", "Nowhere Man", "In My Life"), were his creations. On the other hand, Paul McCartney's presence looms large, not just in his songwriting contributions, but also in his vocal and instrumental versatility and ebullience, which always enriched and enlivened the other members' songs. To me, it genuinely feels like a collective effort, as indeed would "Revolver".

There is still some filler here, but it is superior filler, and by and large it does not tarnish the overall impression of a strong album. If anything this is despite rather than because of the running order; the record does rather tail off, with weaker material predominating towards the close.

This is probably my fourth favourite Beatles LP. "Abbey Road" is glorious pop/rock with added poignancy, "The White Album" is a sprawling and engagingly chaotic document of its times, and "Revolver" is an effervescent case of the Swinging Sixties merging into the counter-culture and psychedelia.  "Rubber Soul" cannot claim that kind of cogency, but it is nevertheless a satisfying listening experience.

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