April 28, 2015
Now we’re getting somewhere. The three albums that comprise The Beatles’ glorious middle period constitute three of the five of the greatest albums of all time, according to this list. Not coincidentally, they are also pretty central components of the musical appreciation part of my life, which is a pretty central part of my life. So because I resolved to not listen to the albums on this list until their proper time, and because this project has wound up taking much longer than expected, I have been without some fairly important pieces of my life for quite a few years now. I’ve heard individual songs from the albums here and there, but I haven’t been able to sit down and enjoy these albums in full in far too long. What is more, in that span of time, I’ve upgraded to a much better stereo system, and what are likely to be the definitive vinyl reissues of these albums for our time have been released. So I have really, really missed being able to listen to these records. And goddamn, it felt good to be able to listen to this one, the first of the three, and possibly my favorite.
I read a pretty good book recently called To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s quite good. I guess I could say I’d recommend it, depending on who you, the reader, are. In any event, it includes this brief scene in which the protagonist finds himself in a mall music store:
I should try to find some new music, I thought, because there was a time when new music could lift me out of a funk like nothing else. But I wasn’t past the Bs when I saw the only thing I really cared to buy. It was the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, which had been released in 1965. I already owned Rubber Soul. I had owned Rubber Soul on vinyl, then on cassette, and now on CD, and of course on my iPod, iPod mini, and iPhone. If I wanted to, I could have pulled out my iPhone and played Rubber Soul from start to finish right there, on speaker, for the sake of the whole store. But that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to buy Rubber Soul for the first time all over again. I wanted to return the needle from the run-out groove to the opening chords of “Drive My Car” and make everything new again.
It’s a nice passage–one that speaks to the importance that great music can play in our lives, and which makes a canny choice in picking this as an album that might have that kind of lifelong resonance. And yet it also set off a nerdish inaccuracy alarm bell in my head that frankly, slightly diminished my regard for the entire book. Everything is fine right up until the end, when he recounts putting the needle down on the opening chords of “Drive My Car.” “Drive My Car” opens with more like individual notes than chords, but that’s not the part that bugs me. The protagonist is an American of roughly my generation, which means that if he first owned Rubber Soul on vinyl, as I did, than “Drive My Car” wouldn’t have been the first song on the album. On the American version of this album, the first track was “I’ve Just Seen a Face.”
It’s a travesty, of course, that their American record label, Capitol, undermined the integrity of The Beatles’ albums, mostly by shaving off cuts that could then be put onto other albums for which there was no British equivalent. The mixes are also said to be quite different, although I’ve never personally done a side by side comparison. It’s especially egregious that it was allowed to last as long as it did, up through Revolver, by which point these albums had a conscious, decisive sort of integrity that ought not to have been fucked with. And yet I know a lot of people who grew up with the American records who retain a soft spot for “our versions” of these records. For the most part, I have made the transition over to the real albums pretty comfortably, and yet I must admit that I miss hearing “I’ve Just Seen a Face” at the beginning of this album. Its acoustic, bluegrassy feeling sets up the tone of the album perfectly–the presiding folky, autumnal quality that is a big part of the reason I have always considered this my favorite Beatles album.
This was not an accident. While most of Capitol’s rearrangements seem capricious and arbitrary–mostly just thieving tracks to monetize elsewhere, in this one particular case, they seem to have applied a bit of their own real aesthetic logic. They borrowed two songs off of Help!–“I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “It’s Only Love” and put them at the beginning of each side with the explicit intent of making the album feel more folk-rocky. (Indeed, one of the treats of discovering the British releases later in life is realizing how continuous Help! and Rubber Soul in many ways are. The songs Capitol pulled from Help! fit perfectly on the American version of Rubber Soul, as would have other Dylanesque songs like “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.” In turn, some of the poppier moments of Rubber Soul, like “You Won’t See Me,” would have fit right in on Help! The earlier album doesn’t have the same aura of album as intentional art piece–especially where the track listing gets ridiculously slapdash feeling right near the end–“I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Yesterday,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”–but much of the actual songwriting is operating a similarly high level.)
Capitol’s choice in this regard wasn’t purely aesthetic, of course–they were trying to capitalize (no pun intended) on the popularity of Bob Dylan and The Byrds. But the fact is, at least in the case of the opening track, their selection is one that, in its way, works better with the album than The Beatles’ own choice. On the other hand, they left off a number of other songs that fit it quite well with the dominant ethos on the original, particularly “Nowhere Man” and the jaunty, countryish “What Goes On.” So there are definite limits to the wisdom of their decision making here.
Ultimately, of course, one must affirm the integrity of the original release, which is the version I now listen to almost all the time. (Full disclosure: I did kind of cheat on the not listening rule with this one a few years ago when I played a nice old mono copy of the American release I had just bought, on the lawyerish grounds that it wasn’t technically the real album.) The most jarring incongruity remains the opening track, “Drive My Car,” which is a great song, and a great album opener. (Capitol wisely used it as the opener of their quite good but in principle unconscionable frankenalbum Yesterday and Today.) What’s odd to me is how the style of that song mirrors the album title in a way that very few other songs do. From the woodsy cover photo to the stoney, gentle sound of most of the music on this album, the aesthetic of the album feels uniformly folksy, even without “I’ve Just Seen a Face” kicking it off. But for whatever reason, they went with a title that indicated an album that would be rooted in more of an soul influence, despite really only having a few explicitly soul-based tunes.
I guess “The Word” could also be construed as somewhat soul-influenced, though I’ve never really thought of it that way. Actually, I try to think of it as little as possible, since to me its the one true clunker on the album. I saw a poll once asking what people’s favorite song on Rubber Soul was (a small, informal poll, possibly disproportionately targeting aging hippies), and I was stunned to see that “The Word” was the winner, which is just preposterous. I have no problem with its basic message–I love “All You Need is Love,” for example. It’s just the writing on this song–“in the good and the bad books that I have read”–feels so clunky, and parts of it–“it’s so fine!, it’s sunshine!” feel so teeth-gnashingly boosterish that I have historically struggled to imagine anyone not hating it. But I guess it was the first time they introduced the concept of love as a global force for good into their music, which is an important piece of their cultural legacy, so maybe it “matters” in that sense. And I must admit that this listening was the most I ever enjoyed it. I found myself almost looking forward to the hard angular groove it starts off with, and hearing it better than ever before, I noticed for the first time how impressive Paul’s rolling, fast-grooving bass line is. But still, it’s never going to be anything but my least favorite track on the album.
That anyone would think to call it the best song on here is especially absurd, of course, because there is a clear and objectively agreed upon best song on the album, and it is “In My Life.” I saw another, larger and more widely disseminated poll which elected it the best song of the twentieth century tout court. That overstates the case a little bit–probably that honor should really go to something like “White Christmas” or “Stardust.” But it does underscore what an incredibly fine song it is. As much as I love The Beatles, I don’t always look to them for maximal emotional connection. But a song like this seems to capture the joys and sadness of being human in such a clear and generous way that it reliably can bring a tear to my eye, as it did this time, even after hearing it untold hundreds of times. More so even, really, as I get older and have both more life to look back on and more to love right now. And while it’s arrangement is more chamber-folky in orientation, John’s vocal is probably the most emphatically soulful thing on the album. The track is also noteworthy, of course, for George Martin’s harpsichord solo in the middle, which, if it hasn’t aged quite as well as the rest of the song, remains an important benchmark in establishing–or really, underscoring–the seriousness of The Beatles’ music as real art.
Earlier, I referred to this album as “possibly my favorite” Beatles album. For a long time, I would have dropped the “possibly,” and just went with calling it my solid favorite. If I’ve grown more tentative in that decision in recent years, it is largely in the vacuum of not having had this album in my life. In that time, a friend I often discuss music with has also made the confidence-eroding point a few times that, really, there’s a lot of conspicuously minor songs on an album of this stature. And there is some truth to that. What is more, some of the more noteworthy songs on here–“Norwegian Wood,” “Nowhere Man,” maybe “Michelle”–are ones that I think of myself as having grown somewhat tired of through heavy early exposure. By the flintiest of metrics, one could level the claim that “In My Life” is really the only irreducibly, eternally great masterpiece on the album.
But in listening again for the first time in a long time, and with better sound than ever before, I was pleased to affirm anew how much I really do love this album as a whole. Those songs I feared I had grown tired of felt refurbished in my estimation, and a number of what might qualify as lesser songs–“I’m Looking Through You,” “You Won’t See Me”–are positively delightful, whatever their stature in the broader canon. “Run for Your Life” is a good one, if you can get past the violent misogyny at its core. “Girl” is pleasantly dreamy. “Wait” is maybe a bit forgettable, but is entirely pleasant in the listening.
I’ve grown especially fond of “What Goes On,” which features some of George’s hottest (yet most old fashioned) guitar playing in this era of their music. It’s the only Lennon-McCartney song that Ringo also got partial credit for, though he says he just wrote a line or two. I both hope and doubt in equal measure that the line “you didn’t even think of me as someone with a name” was his. It’s such a heartrendingly deft way of expressing the crushing feeling of anonymity in the shadow of a distant, idealized beloved, and all the more so coming from a man who has spent his entire adult life laboring under an infantilizing pseudonym.
Also noteworthy are the two solid George numbers on the album, particularly “Think for Yourself.” It’s a sharper, heavier song than most of the album–perhaps a bit soul inspired in its buzzy kind of groove–and also a darker one. It’s a nice solid shot of that good old fashioned George Harrison misanthropy, before he got stuck in that backwater of tepid, passive-aggressive spiritual drivel that made The Beatles’ best period overall among his worst as a songwriter. I like his songs on Help! too, but I think this one gets my vote as his best work in the wide timespan between “Don’t Bother Me” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.”
Listening to this album under better conditions than I ever had before (sonically and circumstantially) I was able to really appreciate a lot of the subtlety that went into creating the sounds on this album that give its distinctive character: the refinement of their harmony singing, sometimes into pieces that almost mirror instrumental parts; the greater emphasis on acoustic instrumentation; the real beginning of their experimentation with divergent and unlikely instrumental choices. I’ve always known it was a great album, but I never quite realized just how beautiful it is.
At the same time, I think part of its strength lies in its restraint. Revolver and Sgt. Pepper certainly represent great leaps forward from this album in terms of sonic complexity and studio wizardry. And they are (obviously) great too. Until I hear them both, I’m remaining agnostic on declaring a definite favorite. But to a great extent, there’s a real virtue in the cleaner, less elaborated structures that this album traffics in. What it lacks in aesthetic razzle dazzle (and only in comparison to what came after), it makes up for in a more emotionally immediate listening experience. Whatever the song-to-song virtues of the album, I think this album does a better job than the others at creating an overarching mood–one whose sepia-tinged warmth and integrity is almost endlessly inviting to me.
In the narrative of drug experimentation that paralleled and strongly informed The Beatles musical development, this album is understood to be the culmination of their “weed period,” which began in earnest on Help!, whereas Revolver and Sgt. Pepper (and Magical Mystery Tour) constitute their full on psychedelic period. To extend that historical reality into something like a metaphor, I would say that the psychedelic albums–especially Sgt. Pepper–are rare and splendid things, great special occasion albums. Whereas this album in its more resolute comfortability, feels like something one could easily settle into enjoying on a more regular basis. I love Sgt. Pepper, but I don’t think I could listen to it everyday. This album, on the other, I could easily listen to everyday, at least for awhile. And now that I’m allowed to again, I just might.
Source: LP – The 2014 Mono release. I just can’t say enough about how great–and truly definitive–these records sound. I have various other copies of this record, but this is the definite new go to.
April 27, 2015
Of the ten albums that top this list, there were two I was not really looking forward to. One was London Calling, which is long and belongs to a genre, broadly speaking, that I’m not all that fond of. This was the other one, which is short and belongs to a genre, broadly speaking, that I love quite a bit. So it wasn’t the listening in this case that worried me, but the morass of having to explain why I have never managed to love this album as much as I’m obviously supposed to. I have probably tried listening to this record six or eight times in my life–though not in many years–and have always come away a bit nonplussed by it. And seeing it way up here among the best of the best albums, my confusion naturally turns a bit defensive in light of the evidential proof that it is I who am wrong–whose tastes are insufficiently cultivated to grasp this album’s greatness.
The most obvious explanation would be that it–like London Calling–triggers my squeamishness toward being presented with overtly political issues in music. And yet I don’t think that’s the case here. Over the course of the project, my knee jerk liberal guilt mechanism has largely grown inured to such considerations, especially where I actually like the music. Bob Marley took a little longer than some because of the unbecoming frat boy associations, but in general, if the music’s good, I’m fine with whatever the subject matter is. And if the music is very good, it might even cut through my defenses and cause me to contemplate with compassion the kind of systemic social injustices it is generally in my best interests not to think about too much. Innervisions and There’s a Riot Goin’ On, for example, are two albums of a similar vintage and vantage point as this one which I both love and have learned from. The latter’s title, I recently learned, was intended as a response to the question posed by this one’s. The former is one I would be very much in support of seeing in the top ten of this list in place of this one.
No, my big problem with this album historically is a puzzling kind of vagueness I’ve always experienced in listening to it. This listening was probably the most I’ve ever enjoyed it, and I’m pleased to report that my opinion of it has improved. But I can’t say that it fully budged that underlying basic confusion as to what I might be missing in this music that everyone else seems to hear. Structurally, the first side is essentially two songs at either end with a lot of kind of diffuse stuff in between that doesn’t quite coalesce into and memorable or discrete pieces of interesting music.
The two actual songs on the first side, admittedly, are excellent. The title track and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” are both enduringly great songs, fully deserving of their status as masterpieces. If the album were more densely packed with songs of this caliber, I’d be less suspicious of its claims to greatness. And yet, though I readily concede their greatness, I also don’t feel a strong connection to them, and not only because I am not existentially (or perhaps morally) disposed to experiencing their messages with the kind of emotional directness they are intended to have. (Given that I have kids, the environmental critique hits closer, though I tend to experience it more as a feeling of rage toward business-friendly Congressmen rather the kind of stately, mellifluous sadness expressed in “Mercy Mercy Me.”)
But the main problem for me is that, great though they are, they are also heading in a stylistic direction that is not my favorite thing in the world. In some sense, they feel like foundational documents of that strain of 70s soul–a little schmaltzier and string sectiony than the soul of the 60s–that eventually led to the kind of overly melismatic contemporary “R&B” sound. These songs are beautiful, but in their lush arrangements and heightened sense of intimacy (even as they describe more global circumstances), I can’t help but see the arrow of their influence pointing down the line to music that I can barely stand to listen to.
But that aside, conceding that the greatness of those two songs is assured, all the stuff that comes between them–a long pastiche of thematically linked not-quite-songs–is still a good deal less concretely excellent than one would hope to have taking up that much space on an album touted to be among the very best of all time. Moments of it, it must be admitted, were pretty good. He’d sometimes get into a wordless vocal groove or some uncanny musical passage–often right around the segue between tracks–that felt almost like a soul version of some of Brian Wilson’s musical excursions. The musicianship is uniformly great as well. It is famously the first album to actually credit the session men who had appeared on so many Motown hits, and one does feel as though they are functioning at an exceptionally high level, as if in recompense for finally being treated as equals. James Jamerson’s bass work in particular has a warm, fluid feeling that keeps the album feeling grounded and groovy even in some of the more abstract passages. But too often, the music just seems like strange, string-drenched filler over which Marvin Gaye is kind of “rapping” in the old sense of the term about society’s ills, or the dim prospects for our children’s future. What he’s saying is true, and important, but it doesn’t seem to rise to the level of a meaningful aesthetic cogency that would make tracks such as “Flying High (in the Friendly Sky)” or “Save the Children” all that worth revisiting on a regular basis.
Side two, which I probably have heard less than the first, having given up too early, turned out to be a good deal better. The vague, not quite songlike material still predominates, but to much greater effect. In place of short pieces that never quite go anywhere, the side is anchored by the long, deeply funky, latinate rhythms of “Right On,” which is replete with interesting tempo changes and compelling vocable grooves. In its quality of studio-manipulated musical tapestry, it almost recalled Miles Davis’s underrated Jack Johnson album (on which one the tracks, coincidentally(?), is called “Right Off.”) This track seems like a fuller realization of the musical vision of the album than that which came before it, and in some way is good enough to validate the whole thing. And yet, inevitably, it devolves a bit as it segues it “Wholly Holy,” a track that echoes the lesser material on side one, except is also about Jesus.
Following that brief but precipitous drop in my interest, though, the side is brought to an exceptionally satisfying close with “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” It’s only the third of what I would define as a real song on the album, and while its probably the least known of three, in some ways, it might be the best one. Or at least, it’s the track that best seems to synthesize some of the broader musical ideas of the album into the more compactly satisfying package of a real song. The “make me wanna holler” part midway through, and the great wordless singing that follows it is especially solid–one of the album’s real highlights. By the end of side one, I had more or less concluded that I wouldn’t be coming away from this listening much more convinced of this album’s greatness than I had been going in. But by the end of side two, I was more willing to entertain the possibility that I might have been selling it short these many years–but only up to a point.
I think there are two possible routes by which one might arrive at the conclusion that this is a great album. The first and more casual option is to essentially conflate the entire album with its title track–to conclude on an unexamined or ill-remembered basis that the whole album rises to the level of “What’s Going On,” and “Mercy Mercy Me.” But clearly that isn’t at all true if you actually listen to the album. The other, more spuriously critically serious approach would be to embrace the entire album for its importance as a thematically unified, musically continuous concept album of a sort that was at the time rare within the field of soul music. The problem with that approach is that it renders the album more theoretically great than actually great–that is, it ignores the fact that there is at most half an album’s worth of really good music on here.
For whatever reason, it is true that African-American artists in general were slower to embrace the album as the default unit of artistic expression, and remained focused on making great singles during the time that white artists like The Beatles and The Beach Boys were inventing the idea of the “album” in the modern sense–a collection of songs that feel as though they belong together, which adhere to their own internal–if not strictly thematic–logic. The sad upshot of which is that many of the greatest recording artists of the 1960s–Smokey Robinson, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin–don’t really have a truly great album in their body of work. Even though all of those just named have albums included on this list, and those albums have a lot of great songs on them, they still give off the impression of an album in the older sense of the term–a selection of singles and lesser songs compiled by a producer with minimal input from the artist and without much in the way of communicating any kind of overarching ethos.
So this album is important in the sense of having been among the first albums by a black artist that demonstrated the same kind of long form ambition that was already in the process of being beaten into a bloated, tiresome cliche by white rock bands. It feels that much more important for having been released by an artist who fought for and won creative control of his own career after years of being one of those performers whose output was confined to making great singles out of material selected for him by his label, Motown. (It’s sacrilege to say so, but I actually prefer the Marvin Gaye of that period. I feel as though he made some of the greatest art of its time and his career by pushing against those limitations, infusing the given material with an unprecedented degree of emotional intimacy and quiet force, whereas once he was free to do whatever he wanted, he got a bit indulgent and sloppy-feeling for my tastes, a handful of great tracks like “Let’s Get it On” notwithstanding.) Perhaps above all, the album feels important because its theme is so fearlessly direct and serious–he’s singing (and talking, and talk-singing) about stuff that really mattered–to Black Americans of that era first and foremost, but to all citizens of the world more broadly. And that gravity does earn it some very real sense of importance. So yes, it is an important album. It’s just that, from the stricter perspective of the actual music on the album, it’s only about half of a great album.
The comparison I can’t help but come back around to is Stevie Wonder–another artist who wrested creative control away from Motown, and who went on the make several albums in a row that are unquestionably among the best of his–or anyone’s–career. The generally agreed upon best of these, Innervisions, does not flow from track to track the way this one does. And though it prominently features a number of songs that present a social critique in the same wheelhouse as this album, it also permits itself to divert from a strict theme. It also came out a few years after this one. But–and which seems more important to me–it is a much better, much much more consistently excellent album. An album need not be a concept album to be a great album. It simply needs to hang together in a purposeful fashion, and offer up a consistently strong collection of songs that feel as though they belong on the same album. Many critics, for example, now regard Revolver as The Beatles’ finest album, though it lacks the overt conceit of the more traditionally lauded Sgt. Pepper (the number one album on this somewhat conservative list).
I have no beef with this album being here on that list–even somewhere up in the upper echelons in acknowledgement of its sociological importance. But I just can’t get behind the idea that it’s the sixth greatest album of all time. Even doing a direct swap with Innervisions at #24 seems to overstate its greatness, though it would at least put the two in more of a proper relationship to each other. On the other hand, I must admit that I did come away from this album more seduced by it than I had expected. In the hours and days after listening to it, I found myself unexpectedly reminded of the album Voo Doo by D’Angelo–an artist and an album who owe Marvin Gaye’s more emphatically erotic output an explicit debt. Both stuck with me in a distinctively , almost liminal, dreamlike way. But where the quality of Voo Doo’s aftermath was like that of a stoned, postcoital drowsiness, the experience of coming away from this album felt more like emerging from an unsettling, pessimistic daydream. It wasn’t entirely an entirely comforting experience, but the mysterious, almost wordless feeling it left me with did, in the end, open up the possibility that the album’s greatness really does reside in the sum total of the experience, even if much of the album feels like odd, inconsequential filler as its playing. It may, in the end, be an album I need to revisit more extensively before I’m really clear on how I feel about it. But for now, I’m pretty certain that it’s nowhere close to the sixth best album I have ever heard.
Source: LP – An old, 70s pressing in decent shape. Sounded good!
April 22, 2015
I don’t know if anyone who hasn’t been listening along at home has noticed, but this makes the forth double album in a row. (The Elvis compilation at #11 was also two discs long, but that’s kind of another category.) For much of the project, I’ve frequently listened several albums ahead and caught up on the writing as I was able, since times I can listen to music and times I can write don’t always line up so neatly. But I made a decision to “do it right” for the top ten records and listen to and then write about them one at a time. So logistically, having this many double albums in a row has been a bit of a headache to work around. Structurally, though, I think it’s sort of fascinating. Of the top ten albums of all time according to this list, four are double albums, and those four occupy the bottom four slots. It seems to me that there’s something essentially (and unusually) spiritually correct about this. While the introduction of the CD made the length and apportioning of an album less of a concern, and thus less central to the experience, traditionally, there has been something kind of special about a double album. There’s a cup runneth over sense of too much good music to pare down to one single album, housed in an album cover that is by necessity more of a substantial object than your average album. There’s a special kind of excitement unique to a great double album. At the same time, they can be a bit exhausting. They’re not only longer, but generally have a sense of aesthetic sprawl to them–a slightly indulgent cavalcade of differing styles and quality levels of songs that almost always lacks the airtightness of a great single album. You wouldn’t want every album to be a double, but it’s good that they exist. And so in that sense, I think it works out especially well to have what are generally regarded as the four best double albums of all time grouped together here, in the bottom half of the very top. Which makes this the highest rated double album on the list. It’s also the album generally regarded as the artistic high water mark of The Rolling Stones’ recording career–the fourth and final entry in what is considered to be their best period of work. To varying degrees, I have been insufficiently acquainted with each of those four albums–Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers and this one. I didn’t develop a consistent interest in The Stones earlier in life, and the period in which I was becoming most enthused about really making these records a part of my life was interrupted by this project, in which all of those albums were ranked highly enough to be off limits to me for a number of years. But of all those albums, this one has felt like the biggest mystery to me. In part, although I didn’t grow up listening much to those other albums, they were at least a part of my father’s record collection. But for some reason, my father never owned this record, and so it lacked that imprimatur of significance that the other’s had by virtue of being in my childhood home. I don’t think I ever even really heard of this one until my late teens or early twenties, at which point I began to hear it referred to in reverential terms as their masterpiece. I remember the first time I heard it, or at least part thereof. A friend of mine was selling off all his possession and moving cross country, and I wound up with his beat to hell CD of this record. The only song I knew going in was “Loving Cup,” as it was frequently covered by Phish, who were my primary musical interest at the time. I tried it out, and was mystified by exactly why it was so highly regarded. It had hardly any hits, or at least songs I had heard of, it seemed kind of loud and messy and confusing, and it was dauntingly long. It’s very double albumness proved impenetrable to my impatient youthful ears, and it was many years before I gave it another try. I think the occasion of its remastered release on CD about five years ago was what brought me back around. And while I still never spent enough time with it to be able to call it an album I truly know and love, I certainly heard it enough to hear where it could become one. In that spirit, it was one of the albums I have been most looking forward to getting to sit down and enjoy again. And enjoy it I did. The more I hear it, the more mystified I am by my knee-jerk dismissal of it in my youth. I mean, it is messy and kind of confusing and long, but it’s also awesome–and a lot of the more sure fire accessible tunes are positioned toward the front of the album, so I really have no excuse. Indeed, in trying to impose some sense of order upon the album that it may not actually have, I came to think of the first side as the most solid, accessible side. “Rocks Off” would be a great and natural kick off to any rock ‘n roll album, but especially to this one. Amidst the sprawl and diversity of the album, there’s an underlying kind of sound to much of the record–that kind of aerobic Mick Jagger pacing, but with enough Keith Richards dirtiness to rarely feel corny or cloying. And certainly “Rocks Off” is one of the handful of songs that both sets and epitomizes that tone. But if its peppiness and the oft-quoted (and admittedly clever) line “the sunshine bores the daylights out of me” risks making it feel a bit too relentlessly like a doofy good time party song, there’s that weird slow, croaky bit in the middle–just a few bars–to give the pleasure seekers something to think about. The album makes its one substantial misstep–at least to me–in the choice of the second track. I love “Rocks Off,” but it does operate near the upper level of my preferred energy level. I found myself almost physically craving a slower track to bring it down a notch, but instead, they ramp it up into hysterical territory with “Rip This Joint.” It’s got that throwback, revved up early rock ‘n roll feeling in the spirit of Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, and is the type of song that anyone other than those two guys–including Mick Jagger–winds up sounding like kind of an asshole trying to do. And yet all is forgiven with the opening strains of Slim Harpo’s “Shake that Thing.” Mick Jagger once famously wondered why anyone would want to listen to their version of “King Bee” when they could listen to Slim Harpo’s. And that’s a fair question. I certainly wouldn’t. But by this point, they had developed more of a confidently unique bent in their interpretations of the blues, and this track is in a different class entirely from their tentative British-Invasion era “King Bee.” I wouldn’t say it outstrips Slim Harpo’s version, but it certainly stands alongside it. The general tenor of rock ‘n roll sturdiness continues through the side, through “Casino Boogie,” and finishing up with the superb “Tumbling Dice,” which is the album’s single, and its biggest, best known song. I don’t how I missed it in my long ago dismissal of the album, because it is a song that practically insists upon being dug. It’s the sound of the greatest rock ‘n roll band of all time firing on all cylinders. Every piece from Mick Jagger’s exquisite bravado down to Charlie’s Watts’s rock solid foundation works together with maximum impact, abetted by a soulful if disembodied-feeling chorus of female singers. It’s a stretch to call it the greatest rock ‘n roll song of all time, but it’s certainly among the last great rock n’ roll song (understanding “rock ‘n roll” to refer to something more specific than just “rock” or “pop”). It does everything a great rock ‘n roll song is supposed to do in a way that I don’t think has quite been matched since (though fans of AC/DC and Aerosmith may beg to differ). In any event, though “Rip This Joint” threw things a bit off for me, the strength of “Tumbling Dice,” particularly as is bookends “Rocks Off,” leaves the listener with a general impression of having heard a perfect side of a record–and surely the most perfect side of this charmingly imperfect record. The second side, while not as uniformly strong, was perhaps the one that best corresponded to my personal musical tastes. It’s the side that most demonstrates the influence of Gram Parsons, being predominantly comprised of semi-acoustic, countryish type material. Of these, “Sweet Virginia” was the one that had stuck with me from my previous listens to this album, which makes sense since it’s literally a singalong song–something simple and infectious enough to fold itself almost instantly into one’s musical vocabulary. It wouldn’t be right to call it their best country song since that overlooks more thoughtfully written songs like “Dead Flowers,” but on some level, it’s my favorite of their recorded performance in that vein. In its campfire looseness there emerges a deep, soulful country-funkiness, refreshingly unperturbed by Jagger’s usual insistence on putting on a horrible caricature of a southern accent. The following tracks, “Torn and Frayed” and “Sweet Black Angel” retain some of that country flavor, while also fitting themselves into the presiding grittiness of the album as a whole. I don’t know these songs well enough yet that they’ve really lodged themselves in my inner ear, but this listening made me want to get there with them. “Torn and Frayed” in particular feels like a real gem. In seeing “Loving Cup” on the track listing, I was expecting that it would feel a bit out of place with the rest of the side, but I had forgotten how tentative and laid back this version is–a quality exacerbated, I think, by an exceptionally poor mix. I’m still more used to Phish’s version, which is more in the area of a fist pumping arena rock anthem. You couldn’t call it better than the original since they can’t sing nearly as well as Mick Jagger, but they have refined it over decades of performance, perfecting its contours of contrasting volumes and emotional release to educe an excitement that seems to exist merely potentially in this album version. Maybe The Stones do it better live too–I couldn’t say. Perhaps appropriately, side three is the point at which the album really starts to feel like a double album–the region where a potpourri of strange, singular, tossed off or experimental songs seems to predominate. It’s kind of the “weird side” of the record, in a good way. “Happy” is the rare all-Keith song, in which his appealingly croaky voice gives us a brief respite from Mick’s indefatigable professionalism. As the title suggests, it is also one the albums more buoyant, uplifting tracks, which makes the rough edges around Keith’s voice that much more uncannily perfect for the job. “Turd on the Run” is as frenetic in its way as “Rip This Joint” but much more weird and messy. I liked it. “Ventilator Blues” is a bit of mid-side highlight, primarily for its deeply funky, spacious groove, driven by an overlapping array of slide guitar parts, eventually supported by horns. Toward the end, things move in a definite gospel direction, first with the weird, tossed off “feel the spirit” number “I Just Want to See His Face,” and followed more effectively by the stately, soulful “Let it Loose,” whose shimmery guitars almost echo the style Pops Staples, and which is permeated by a spooky kind of aura that makes it the best song on the side, and arguably among the best on the album. Although this side feels in some sense like the most scattershot and perhaps indulgent part of the album, depending on what you’re looking for, it could also be construed as the richest and most intriguing side. Maybe it was just fatigue setting in, but side four felt a bit superfluous, except inasmuch as it brought the album back around to a big, chunky satisfying finale after the strange excursions of side three. “All Down the Line” returns us to the presiding, gritty rock ‘n roll feeling of the album. The Robert Johnson cover “Stop Breaking Down” is pretty damn serviceable as white guy blues goes, and features a trippy, off-label sort of harmonica part that uses that instrument in a way I have never heard before. Still, it’s not as satisfying a track overall as “Shake Your Hips,” and it’s not even in the same universe of greatness as their cover of Johnson’s “Love in Vain” on Let it Bleed. The pair of songs at the end–“Shine a Light” and “Soul Survivor”–form an appropriate (if slightly overblown) conclusion to the album, echoing both the gospel flavors introduced on side three and the big anthemic satisfactions that start the album off. Whether out of inertia or just uncertainty, I’m going to stick with calling Let it Bleed my favorite Stones album. And yet after this listening, I can also see where this might be considered the one most deserving of the title of the quintessential Stones album. Certainly it’s the one that best embodies the contradictions of their four album run of masterpieces–the kind of fundamental weirdness and unknowability that creeps in around their sturdy, “best rock n’ roll band of all time” framework. If there was a self-conscious art music component at work there–call it the Lou Reed influence–I think it perhaps reached its apotheosis on Sticky Fingers. But this album represents a further step toward a more organic, heart of darkness strangeness–a kind of radical imperfection sprouting up around the more universal satisfactions of their big, riff heavy sound. Maybe it was all that heroin. It’s tempting to try to line that contradiction up along a series of easy dichotomies–art vs. commerce, calculation vs. inspiration, clarity vs. intoxication, and most obviously, Mick vs. Keith. I do think, though, that there’s a risk of oversimplification in doing so. While Mick is the most obvious face of the band’s move toward the center–toward becoming a monolithic entertainment enterprise above and beyond being a creative entity–one ought not entirely write off Mick’s artistry–the very real partnership that he and Keith had (more genuine than that of Lennon and McCartney) in making this music. Mick Jagger has famously always been a little less jazzed about this album than almost everyone else, and has seemed at times to almost resent its reputation as the best album he and his band ever made. Which is a shame, because while a lot of the qualities that this album is most often lauded for–its grittiness and sprawling dark strangeness–feel pretty solidly Keith-associated, this album also seems to represent something of a high water mark for Jagger’s artistry as well. Even if (as he has long maintained) his voice is too low in the mix, one still hears him singing with captivating abandon that very much rises to the occasion this music presents. His words are appropriately and intriguingly abstract, having moved past both the straightforwardness dumbness of something like “Under My Thumb” and the milquetoast attempted Dylanisms of “Jigsaw Puzzle,” arriving at his own kind of divine nonsense, infused with an inimitable erotic force. He may have his ambivalences about this album, but to my ear, it really is among the best work he ever did–and certainly the last gasp of real art he committed to tape before devolving into the comparative product of the “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)” material on which the group rode out most of the rest of the decade. Ironically, when the album first came out, Jagger expressed his ambivalence in terms of it being insufficiently artistic. He defined himself as the creative vanguard contingent of the group, and expressed disappointment in what he saw as the album’s stolid, regressive rock ‘n roll traditionalism. In more recent years, he has dwelled on the more obvious complaints that one might direct at this album: that it’s too messy, too jumbled and weird feeling, and that the sound quality is severely inadequate. If I had to hazard a guess, I would think a lot of his kind of sour feelings for this album must come from the conditions that brought it about: the darkness surrounding their semi-literal exile from their home country, and Keith’s descent into deep, through the looking glass debauchery of a sort that might well have signaled the beginning of the end of their friendship, and the point at which Mick really had to become the grown up of the partnership once and for all. So, is it the greatest double album of all time, as this list would have it? Well–sure, let’s say yeah. Why not? I’m sort of the wrong person to ask, since two of the four double albums I’ve just listened to are intimately familiar old favorites, and the other two much less so. I feel in some sense like The White Album is the more quintessential, more widely beloved double album, and one that I like more than this one without being confident of which would count as objectively “better”. But I think this is a better and more important Rolling Stones record than that is a Beatles record. And in any event, we’re just about to hit the part of the list where literally every other album is a Beatles album, so I’m fine with this one coming out on top in that particular face off. Blonde on Blonde, which was the first major double album, was possibly my favorite of the bunch on this listen. And yet there’s something about an album by a single artist that doesn’t quite capture the diverse and far ranging spirit of a double album in quite the same way that a full band can–although Dylan certainly comes mighty close. And London Calling, the other less familiar one to me, wouldn’t stand a chance in my own personal ranking. So, yeah. We’ll say this one is the best. I hope that the next several years will find me getting to know and love it as intimately as I do The White Album and Blonde on Blonde. I may have started too late in life to get there, but it feels like this one is really worth the try. Source: LP–an early pressing. This may be one that potentially challenges my general prejudices toward analog and original over digital and remastered. I remember when I got the remastered CD about five years ago (just when I was getting into better audio) that I really loved the way it sounded–not in comparison to anything, just intrinsically. I thought it sounded exciting. But then I read a review from someone more expert than me who felt that it was mastered to cater too strongly to contemporary tastes–that it really popped out in a way that way initially appealing, but which was destined to grow fatiguing over the course of the whole album. Too much compression, or some such. And yet I have to say, these records just don’t sound great to me. I agree with Mick Jagger that the mix is all off, and while that perhaps contributes to mystique or flavor of the record, it might also just make it not as good a record as it could have been. So I look forward to going back to that CD copy and seeing how I feel now a few years later.
April 20, 2015
So, Brian Wilson has a new album out. I haven’t heard it yet. (I’ll probably dutifully buy it and hardly ever listen to it.) But the release has occasioned a round of some pretty good interviews. In one of them, for some reason, the interviewer asked him what he thought of punk rock, and Brian Wilson says, effectively, “punk? what is that? I don’t think I know what that is.” The interviewer explains that it was a kind of loud, aggressive music popular in the late seventies, and good ol’ Brian Wilson says something like, “oh, yeah, no–I never listened to that stuff.” And why should he have? He was pretty deeply sunk into his mentally frail reclusive lifestyle at the time. But also, he was a genius–one of a handful of artists on this list who truly deserves that designation–and why should he have to expose himself to kinds of music whose virtues, such as they are, are at best irrelevant to the particulars of his genius, and by some interpretations, downright hostile to them. (Although it turns out that Joe Strummer cited The Beach Boys as one of his first and biggest musical inspirations. So what the hell do I know?)
In any event, punk is something that the rest of who are not so constituted as to find it all that interesting have to find a way to reconcile themselves to, at least insofar as we want to maintain our credentials as reasonably well rounded music enthusiasts. Because, as should be obvious by the assertion that this is the eighth greatest album of all time, the critical consensus is that punk was an important development in the history of twentieth century music–among the last and most important true musical cataclysms. Dave Marsh, a critic I love though often disagree with, called this album “the Blonde on Blonde of its generation”–a characterization that, for me, makes its ranking exactly one above that much better record that much more unfortunate. But in any event, I did my best to approach this album respectfully, mindful of the fact that a probable majority of serious music lovers and scholars believe this album to be important in a way that I ought not be so obtuse as to dismiss outright.
And happily, though it persists in not really being my kind of album, I found that I hated it a good deal less than I expected, and even found myself kind of tentatively enjoying myself on a few tracks. Part of me had hoped to be able to be a wiseass and say that I liked this double album better than Sandinista, a triple album, but not as well as their eponymous single album debut, and that that ranking was purely a function of their respective lengths. But as it turned out, this was indeed the best of the lot–an album that allows itself to sound almost like good, hard power pop in places rather than all out, nihilistically aggressive punk rock, and whose flirtations with reggae provide a welcome rhythmic contrast without tipping too much over into the kind of interminable world-musicy self-seriousness of Sandinista. Following my review of that album, one reader (and an old friend) wondered something along the lines of “You don’t like The Clash? What the hell’s the matter with you?” I don’t know if he actually ever sat through that entire long and taxing record before, but it seemed obvious enough to me that its protracted pretensions wouldn’t be for everyone. The shorter, sharper debut album had less to complain about, though its “we’re angry about stuff and all our songs sound the same” ethos was also, as far as I was concerned, not an unqualified winner. But, while I could in no way be said to have loved this whole album, I must concede that there were parts of it that reached that kind of universal-feeling appeal that might make some sense out of that question. Though more generally, I couldn’t really tell you what the hell’s the matter with me.
If it was musically less relentlessly opposed to my taste than their other albums, though, my basic disinterest in its highly political orientation and general angriness persisted. It’s been an ongoing struggle of the project, but to a large extent, I am stubbornly apolitical in my aesthetic tastes, even if the views expressed more or less cohere with my own political viewpoint. It’s probably basically a liberal guilt problem–I just don’t see the appeal of being hectored by angry-sounding people about the fundamental societal injustices that have made my life arbitrarily comfortable enough, for example, to be listening to their music on a pretty good stereo system. I’m happy enough to acknowledge it as a personal failing, but it’s just the way it is for me. Where the subject is love or sadness, I’m a heart on my sleeve kind of guy, and I have little patience for the use of irony as a distancing mechanism. But where the subject is class rage, I find the kind of earnestness these guys project to be quickly fatiguing. To the extent that I can tolerate that sort of subject matter at all, it either has to be Stevie Wonder soulful, or else employ the very kind of ironic distancing mechanisms I elsewhere eschew, such as some of Randy Newman’s brilliantly cogent eviscerations of society’s ills, in which his own liberal guilt is explicitly factored in as part of the action. That stuff works for me in a way that Joe Strummer’s impassioned whine never will.
Indeed, Strummer’s voice is among the irreducible factors that makes this music fundamentally not mine. I’m sure to many it’s a lot of the source of this music’s power, but to me it’s just bewilderingly unpleasant–an almost intoxicated sounding slurry belligerence. I don’t get it at all. When I put this record on, circumstances had conspired to make me feel a bit put upon and cranky, and I hoped that its basic angriness might agreeably jibe with my state of mind, but instead Strummer’s voice burrowed right into my existing irritability, almost making me want to kick my speakers in the nuts.
That feeling persisted through the first few tracks, even though the opening title track is one of the few songs I knew going in and don’t generally hate. But my mood was pretty well favorably stabilized by the introduction of the mellower–and slightly zany–textures of the third track, “Jimmy Jazz,” which, if not one of the major songs on the album, at least gave me some promise of tonal variance to go on. The rest of the first side rode itself out tolerably enough, with the ironically likable “Hateful” and the introduction of the record’s significant ska component on the bouncy, agreeable “Rudie Can’t Fail.”
The tiresomeness returned for me a bit with the impassioned hectoring about a long ago political situation I had no context for understanding in “Spanish Bombs.” But its follow up, “The Right Profile” kind of intrigued me on first listening. It seemed to be at least peripherally about Montgomery Clift, which is at least plausibly interesting, and it had a kind of cogent, almost poppy flavor to the music that was more up my alley than the harder edged material.
After that, I rode through the rest of the album with a basic kind of indifference that was punctuated in about equal measure by moments of annoyance and moments of disarming pleasure. Some of the songs I found myself more into were among the few not to have their own Wikipedia entries, which may or may not indicate that they are of less general significance. “The Card Cheat” seemed, for example, to have a kind of sturdy, rocking pleasingness to it that attracted me, abetted by the slightly less annoying singing of Mick Jones. Jones’s voice is also featured on one of the album’s biggest hits, “Train in Vain,” which is one of the few songs I knew going in, and which I enjoy pretty much unambiguously (which I realize is a contradiction in terms, but I’m going to let it stand). “Guns of Brixton,” which seems to be frequently cited as among the album’s most essential tracks, on the other hand, made almost no impression on me at all.
More often, it was a discrete piece of something rather than an entire song that grabbed me. I liked the false “Stagger Lee” start of “Wrong ‘em Boyo” as well as its ebullient horn section. “Clampdown” did little for me as song, but it did have a kind of cool rhythmic breakdown in it. Similarly, the boring (if not inaccurate) anti-corporate sentiments of “Koka Kola” did little to arouse my interest, but I found myself impressed by the dexterity of the rhythm section–no small thing, since one of my standing complaints about punk-based music is its general devaluation of instrumental prowess. “Revolution Rock,” which structurally somewhat indistinct, also provided some compelling instrumental moments in a loose, jammy sort of way.
In the end, I can report that I didn’t hate this record, which I would regard as progress of a sort. What’s still difficult for me to reconcile, of course, is how an album that I found merely–and not uniformly–tolerable could land this high up on the list. But I get, sort of. Punk is important, even if it will never be all that important to me personally. And this album, being among the more important and critically lauded punk-related albums of all time makes a certain amount of sense as a place holder for that genre’s place in the uppermost echelons on what counts as important popular music.
On the other hand, what’s problematic about that is that it isn’t in a pure sense a uniformly punk rock album. Between its experiments with more diverse rhythms and its not infrequent concessions toward more straightforward, even radio-friendly rock ‘n roll–to say nothing of its somewhat indulgent lengthiness–it is an album that manages to push beyond the limitations of punk rock without losing its punk rock credentials. In that sense, it has been understood by many (and properly so, I think) as a “post-punk” record–possibly the first significant album of that nebulous genre. And one of the better ones, too, judging by the far more annoying entries lower down on the list to fall under that umbrella, such as Public Image Ltd.’s almost unlistenably “experimental” Metal Box. But call it what you will–punk, post-punk, ska-influenced class rage didacticism–it’s an album that’s important enough to enough people to have landed itself way up here near the top. I just don’t happen to count myself among them. And that’s okay.
Source: LP. An early pressing, if not the very first. “Train in Vain” does not appear on the track listing.
April 15, 2015
The opening track of an album is among the most important structural decisions an artist or producer can make in putting an album together. You need something that sets a tone for the album, usually but not always something upbeat, maybe not the very best track you’ve got, but certainly one of the best–something that will reach out and grab the listener. Debates erupt over the best opening tracks of all time (or at least they did in High Fidelity). One very solid candidate for the greatest opening track of all time, for example, would have to be “Like a Rolling Stone” from Highway 61 Revisited, Bob Dylan’s album just prior to this one–a masterpiece of a song to kick off a masterpiece of an album.
And then you’ve got this album, which is unbelievably great, also very much a masterpiece, except that it starts with…a piece of garbage. “Rainy Day Women #s 12 and 35,” colloquially known as “Everybody Must Get Stoned” is a perplexingly slight, annoyingly unfunny, non-endearing little nothing of a song. It doesn’t belong anywhere near an album of this calibre. And yet there it is, for all time, puzzling the music loving world by leading this tremendous album off. And it was a single! I have no idea what that’s about. And I should say that I’m no staunch opponent of baudy, intoxicated silliness, provided it’s good at what it does. “Please Mrs. Henry,” for example, from The Basement Tapes is a tremendously fun, endlessly amusing song. I could listen to that one all day. But this one is not, and never was to me, no matter the age or state of mind. Was it funny in its own time? Was it all that endlessly titillating to say “stoned” over and over? What’s the appeal? It’s hard to figure. Even Simon & Garfunkel managed to satirize it–though maybe that was meant as an homage. Either way, it’s embarrassing.
Otherwise I have very few complaints about this record. Although, since I’ve found myself of necessity leading with the negative, I will also take this moment to confess that I have never really loved the side length closing track “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” nearly as much as I feel I am supposed to. I have no qualm with the basic long and wordy format Dylan indulged in from time to time, provided it manages to hold my interest. Indeed, some of his very finest songs, like “Desolation Row” and “It’s Alright Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” fall into that category. Those I can listen to frequently and without fatigue. But this one, whether for its rather lugubrious pacing, or its relative lack of captivating images, or both, always feels like a bit of a snoozer to me.
I realize that mine is not a popular opinion. Many people seem downright reverent about this one, and regard it as among Dylan’s true masterpieces. My theory is that he was so smart and wise-assed and evasive that people are suckers for those rare times he offers up some glimpse of tender, heartfelt emotion, and tend to overestimate the songs in which he does so. Vast swatches of Blood on the Tracks fall into that category, as does “Sara,” another long, lugubrious song which specifically references this one. Even Dylan himself proudly announced that this was the best song he’d ever written shortly after he recorded it. But he was young and in love–with the subject of the song, and with his own seemingly bottomless capacity for generating smart, surrealistic verses–and perhaps was inclined to overestimated his latest creation. I doubt he’d say the same thing now.
Many critics have observed that it seems in some indistinct way to echo “Visions of Johanna” back toward the beginning of that album, and I think I kind of sensed that on this listening as well. Or at least I held “Visions of Johanna” up as a song that accomplishes much more with much greater economy. With no disrespect intended toward “Pledging My Time,” the fine little blues that precedes it, it is the album’s first emphatically great song, and one of Dylan’s most enduring masterpieces. It swaps out the compelling strangeness of “Desolation Row” type material for something equally brilliant but more mature feeling. In lines after line of tremendous intelligence and sensitivity, it manages to create a scene that feels as much like a short story as it does a poem, albeit one without all that much in the way of a narrative thrust. It’s a lovely, slightly occluded view of a small, intimate cast of characters and the brooding, self-conscious reflections of its narrator, and it sounds absolutely beautiful. A perfect song is rare, and a perfect song clocking in at over seven minutes almost unheard of, but to me, this one really qualifies for that distinction.
It’s possible that it’s the best song on the album, although it has a lot of competition. Through an impressive array of musical styles and emotional tenors, song after song operates at a stunningly high level. Hard, stinging Chicago blues sits comfortably next to lilting acoustic folk tunes, interspersed with things that sound about as close to real pop songs as Dylan ever wrote. Overall, it’s certainly a candidate for his most musically satisfying album, and it is the one he famously described as coming closest to the sound he had in his head–“that thin, that wild mercury sound.” The mood shifts around similarly, though with style not necessarily predicting tone. One of the harder blues tunes, for example, “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,” is also one of the most jubilantly surreal and hilarious. Here and elsewhere, one hears his voice verging in the direction of the standard stupid Dylan impersonation, but what those unimaginative imitators miss is how much fun he’s having–how in he is on the joke: “I saw you making loooove with him–you forgot to cloooose the garaaaage doooooor!” Though the album moves through as many emotional tones as it does musical ones, if there is a presiding spirit to the album, it is Dylan’s irrepressible joy in his own remarkable powers. He is a genius at play, and it’s downright uplifting to hear.
Some core of the “big songs” on this record I long ago concluded I had grown tired of. And maybe I had–I did listen to this record an awful lot in my teens. But I hadn’t really listened to them in a long time, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed songs like “I Want You” and “Just Like a Woman.” If the titular choruses of those songs still feel a bit shopworn to me, the rest of the songs were a delight to hear again. It’s not just the brilliance of the lyrics, but the elegance–the real musicality–of how it the lines flow together, almost prefiguring an Eminem degree of verbal dexterity. Other songs I had not bothered to listen to for awhile, such as “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later)” and “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” were similarly revealing to hear again, though in those cases perhaps more for their musical power than their verbal brilliance. The latter in particular has a handful of lines that feel like clunky overextensions of Dylan’s penchant for clever nonsense–“she just smoked my eyelids and punched my cigarette”–but which are redeemed by the great, driving rock feel of the song, carried especially by the excellent session drummer. “One of Us Must Know” is pretty great too, in a more brooding, sinister way, and is noteworthy for being the only track to feature a plurality of Hawks (or future members of The Band), whereas Robbie Robertson is the only one whose playing appears throughout the album.
A lot of the songs that I never did tire of–ones that I have listened to with pleasure all these many years–are from the back half of the album, the region where a double album might usually be expected to start losing focus. “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and “Obviously Five Believers” in particular are perfect, tight little rockers, tracks who comparatively minor stature are thoroughly redeemed by being some of the most convincingly kick ass rock ‘n roll on the album. “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” in addition to containing one of Dylan’s most quoted aphorisms–“to live outside the law you must be honest”–also contains one of the more fantastically preposterous lines on the album, in which Bob Dylan sings “Anybody can be just like me, obviously.” Right…
A few of the prettier, folkier songs later on the album are also enduringly great. “Temporary Like Achilles” is especially fine–one of the most quietly fervent vocal performances on the album to the tune of a of drowsy, low-key barrelhouse blues, and a fine melody that sort of connects the line drawn between “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands.” “4th Time Around” is an interesting one–if perhaps a bit more conceptually than in practice. It’s an answer song to The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood,” which in turn was among the most explicitly Dylanesque of their efforts. Ultimately, I don’t think it’s quite as good a song as that one–or at least not as memorable melodically. The lyrics are better, because Dylan was a better lyricist than John Lennon, but don’t stand out as much as a highlight in the context of his own work–especially on an album this great. I have always loved the gum thing, though–in the course of the song’s narrative, he offers his lover a stick of gum early in the song. Several verses later, they’re arguing and he tells her “you’re words aren’t clear–you better spit out your gum.” It’s like a small, perfect little comedic vignette in the midst of an otherwise slightly precious story song, and reminds me of Chekhov’s axiom about a gun appearing in the first act. It’s like an unusual little show of above and beyond craft on an already extraordinarily well constructed collection of songs.
Of Dylan’s three mid sixties masterpieces, of which this is the last and most ambitious, this was also the last to come my way. Bringing it All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited seemed to come into my life almost simultaneously (or at least I can’t remember which one my father gave me first). The two of them opened my ears to Dylan’s genius, and in some sense ushered in my adult taste in music (even if I was just thirteen or so). It probably wasn’t that much later that I got this one, and I surely listened to it just about as intensively, and yet it has never had that same symbolic gravity in my musical life. Prior to this listening, I would have unreservedly named Highway 61 Revisited as Dylan’s best record. But right at this moment, I’m not so sure.
Those earlier records bring with them an exciting sense of discovery–the sound of one of the twentieth century’s most important artistic figures coming in to his own–simultaneously discovering and revealing what he was capable of, stretching himself out over a void of artistic improbability. And if the first of those albums is slightly tentative and uneven in its brilliance, the second is a much more bold and cohesive statement–and the forth best album of all time according to this list. But even so, there is a sense in which Dylan was still operating in uncharted territory, and for all his bravado, it surely couldn’t have been easy being met with such vicious resistance from the folk traditionalists who had once been his fan base.
But by the time this album was being made, he had been somewhat vindicated. Even if the folk zealots were still calling his “Judas,” the tremendous success of “Like a Rolling Stone” had endorsed his musical vision, and secured his status as a major cultural figure–a role he was deeply uncomfortable with, but which also must have given him a certain degree of confidence and sense of freedom as he began work on this album. And that brash, confident spirit certainly shines through in this music. It is an album of overflowing excess–the first major double album in rock ‘n roll, and one whose density of creative accomplishment makes it still among the best ever released.
Part of the enduring joy of the album is Dylan’s gregarious grandiosity–a sense of fun and absurdity and a refreshing kind of wonder at his own genius that percolates through the entire album, and which feels entirely deserved and not the least bit unseemly in its pretensions. It’s also the very last we ever saw of this Dylan, before he retreated to the woods and reemerged as an entirely different, more quietly brilliant kind of artist. And perhaps that was just as well–it feels impossible to imagine him continuing to top himself in the same vein as this and the proceeding two records. But these three albums taken as a whole clearly represent the best of the many sides of Dylan we’ve gotten to see–the archetypal, conquering hero of wildly eccentric folk rock brilliance–and this album, the last, the longest and the most self-assured, might well qualify as the best of the lot.
Source: LP – The three disc 45 RPM MFSL set. I can’t say I loved it. It sounded very clear, of course, but it didn’t draw me in with the same immediacy as the Mono Box Set reissue, and the three disc format obscured the natural double album format of the album. Also, the mix of “4th Time Around” seemed kind of screwed up, with the insistent instrumental part almost drowning out Dylan’s voice.
April 13, 2015
It may sound silly given what a big Beatles fan I am, but I found myself pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed listening to this one. Not that I didn’t already know how great it was, of course, but I guess it has been kind of downgraded in my thinking in the absence of actually being able to play it these past few years. I think seeing it up here in the top ten(!)–particularly just edging out Abbey Road for that distinction–rankled me slightly. Perhaps I developed a suspicion that its unique character among Beatles records–messier, stylistically all over the place, and more thrown together feeling than most of their finest achievements–was being disproportionately vaunted, as though its rough edges counted for more in certain quarters than the more mellifluous, symphonic achievements they demonstrated elsewhere. I began to feel that it was perhaps the Beatles record most celebrated by people who misunderstood (or disregarded) some fundamental piece of The Beatles’ greatness.
And yet actually hearing it all the way through did a fairly efficient job of eliminating most of those misgivings. It is rougher than most Beatles albums, less dependent on George Martin’s great orchestrations and studio wizardry, and a little too redolent of how poorly the band was getting along at the time. But it is easily redeemed by the cornucopia of fine and diverse songs that populate it. And while its rough edges seem less interesting to me in the context of whatever influence they may have exerted over time, it is true that in the context of its own time, there is something kind of powerful about the statement it made: that dramatic pulling away from the technicolor splendor of Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour, signaling the end of the psychedelic era and the movement toward some less jubilant place. That transition was perhaps communicated most decisively by the stark white album cover, but the music also supports that feeling of a sudden change in the zeitgeist–a little darker, more direct yet less decisive, less hung up on rococo ornamentation.
Probably the most uncomfortable document of the Beatles’ undoing is the documentary film Let it Be, which has still yet to be released on DVD. But the accompanying album, while famously problematic in its own right, does a decent enough job on conveying the impression of the group working together. It features the last true collaboration between Lennon and McCartney on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” and is kind of generally (if not quite convincingly) held together by the gentle solemnity of the title track and the controversial, gauzy orchestrations of Phil Spector.
But this album sounds a good deal more openly fractious. The only small trace of real collaboration in any of these songs is in the toss-off “Birthday,” and at their outer edges, the divergent styles of Lennon and McCartney feel almost calculated to piss one another off. The recording process for the album–each Beatle essentially working separately (often simultaneously), calling in the others as needed, or not at all–also gives the album a disjointed sonic character, having been recorded by multiple engineers with very little overarching oversight from George Martin. (It has always been the most sonically problematic Beatles record for that reason–another strike against it when compared to the perfect sounding Abbey Road.) If some trace of collectivism or good feeling remains, it is in the ghost of these song’s origins, written in the summer camp-like environs of The Maharishi’s ashram in India. But in the actual execution of the record, the frequent description of this album as really like a shared set of solo albums holds up.
One sometimes hears the claim leveled that this would have ultimately been a more unqualified masterpiece if they had managed to whittle it down to a solid single album. George Martin, who you can tell kind of hates this record, has long been a champion of that position. Like a lot of people, I’ve fiddled around with trying to come up with a theoretical track listing for such an album, but never quite been able to do it–especially not right after hearing it and remembering how great the majority of these songs really are. I could get it down to three sides pretty easily, but two? Not without cutting something essential.
Another way of chopping up the album, it only just occurred to me, would be to actually divvy it up into the John songs, the Paul songs and the George songs as though each was a separate, short album. (Ringo’s first songwriting contribution, “Don’t Pass Me By” is on here too, but that doesn’t quite figure into this scheme of things–although I do find that I rather like it. It’s not a bad little song all told. Perhaps it could be glommed on to George’s theoretical EP.) I might just have to try that experiment sometime, even if it means listening to a non-preferred digital source.
Of those theoretical solo albums, I would clearly like John’s best. Although his songs represent an ambitiously wide stylistic span, I feel as though most of them would fit together pretty well, as they do on the album itself. It’s got some of his loveliest, most unabashedly pretty songs, such as “Julia” and “Dear Prudence,” the latter of which is one of the White Album’s true masterpieces. He also seems to be horning in on Paul’s territory a bit in places, and quite successfully, as on the structurally semi-ambitious “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” which, along with “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” also reveals traces of the kind of cheekiness more often associated with McCartney. Although the “I need a fix” part lends a degree of malevolent heaviness to things that gives it more heft, and which connects it tonally to some of Lennon’s other songs on here such as “I’m So Tired” and “Yer Blues.” I’ve always enjoyed the enervated, exasperated feeling of the former, but never quite warmed up to the latter. Not that it’s really meant to be warmed up to. If McCartney wins the award for the most volumetrically heavy song on the album with “Helter Skelter,” Lennon undercuts that victory with “Yer Blues,” a stinging, no fucking around suicidal blues. I respect it, but find it hard to listen to. And “Glass Onion” is fine, but more satisfying musically than in its self-referential retrospection.
There are some strong contenders toward the back half of Lennon’s “album” as well. “Sexy Sadie” always sneaks up on me for how great it is–a perfectly balanced mixture of beauty and contempt. “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey” is one of the album’s most joyous, almost compulsively danceable numbers. And while most of the credit clearly belongs to Lennon, Paul drops in a heavy, funky little bass line right in the middle which is one of my favorite parts on the whole record. I have never sought out Danger Mouse’s illicit The Gray Album, on which he mashed up elements of The White Album with Jay-Z’s The Black Album, but I’ve always assumed that one little moment of deep funk must surely be one of the cornerstone “beats” of the whole project. “Cry Baby Cry” is, in a weird way, one of my very favorite songs on the whole album. It’s one of those tossed off little tunes that Lennon was quick to disown as a meaningless piece of fluff, but which I think is as sure a sign of his genius as some of his more substantial efforts. I just love that song. It’s also, of course, the last great song on the album.
Because admittedly, several of Lennon’s other contributions to the album’s final side are among the least essential and/or enjoyable tracks on the album. “Revolution 1” is a tepid, pale shadow of the “Revolution” single. “Revolution 9” is famously the most difficult track on the album. It’s one I rarely listen to voluntarily, although when I do actually hear it, I must admit I kind of don’t entirely hate it. I’m not generally a fan of its species of Yoko-influenced, experimental for its own sake kind of twaddle, but as a discrete little experiment on an otherwise strong collection of songs, it almost passes for interesting. The odd, disembodied voices–recognizable as Lennon and Harrison and others, but somehow distant and greek chorus-like–tie the whole thing together better than the washes of backwards noise and so forth. Or maybe its the repeating “Number Nine” figure that makes it all work. The song that follows, “Good Night” seems like the larger aesthetic crime, particularly on the heels on “Revolution 9.” It’s weird, schmaltzy orchestrally overbearing cutesiness doesn’t quite bring the album to a satisfying close, as the the strangeness of its preceding tracks more or less demands. Its origins–a lullaby that John wrote for his son–might have been lovely if they’d recorded it that spirit. But between using Ringo as the singer and giving it a Montovani style arrangement, it winds up being a rough close to the album.
Paul’s “album” has some great moments to it as well, but feels on the whole less substantial, and less cohesive. Most of his contributions lean a bit too much in the direction of his usual tendencies toward being a bit precious and/or cutesy. Some of those tracks, such as “Blackbird,” “Martha My Dear” “Mother Nature’s Son” and “I Will” are absolutely gorgeous, and real highlights of the album. Others, like “Rocky Raccoon” and especially “Honey Pie” tilt a bit too much in a cutesy direction for lots of people–John Lennon among them. I actually have no beef with them, but neither do I find them to be among the album’s true highlights. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” is one that I have noticed over the years that a lot of people really hate. Passionately. I guess I can see that, though its never bothered me. It maybe has a bit too much of that Paul Simonish guileless cultural appropriation thing going for it, but it’s a catchy enough little number. It did recently suffer a downgrading in my estimation, though, when I discovered that the sound he makes following “life goes on” is not just “Aah!,” but rather (terribly) “Bra!,” not as in the undergarment, but as in the even more loathsome variant on the term “bro.” But I guess it was back when the term was more the provenance of actual Jamaicans rather than frat boys. But still–I guess I’ll never quite hear the song in the same way. And “Back in the U.S.S.R” is fine–a good rocking album opener, even if couched a bit too much in high concept.
I guess what’s more striking about Paul’s output when considered together is how divergent the styles are amongst themselves, in a way that doesn’t entirely fit together all that well. His last two songs on the album, to provide the most striking example, are “Helter Skelter” and “Honey Pie.” It turns out that the album’s much vaunted stylistic diversity is not purely a matter of the different songwriters, but also of the all over the place sounds McCartney was messing with at the time. Of these, because I am lame, I admit to finding the “Honey Pie” type material easier to swallow than the “Helter Skelter” end of things. That song has always felt like a bullshitty kind of quasi-art project–a barrage of unbridled noise and aggression just to prove he could do it, rather than an organically arrived at, integrally meaningful piece of music. (He only wrote it after The Who bragged that they were the loudest band going.) But quite probably some people regard it as the most important song on the whole album. There’s also a few tossed off little numbers like “Wild Honey Pie” and “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” that I like well enough, but which do seem kind of minor and unjustified in the context of a Beatles record. They point toward the kind of dispiritingly minor efforts McCartney made on his first solo album (which was largely culled from leftover scraps not substantial enough to put on The White Album.) Lennon once called “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?” Paul’s best song–though that was really just a mean sort of swipe at his former partner, diminishing McCartney’s body of actual work for its relative absence of id.
The only George song that announces itself as a real major effort is “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” It is a tremendous song–far better than any of his lackluster efforts of the psychedelic era (up through the songs on Yellow Submarine, which, preposterously, was released just after this album). It definitely points more toward his swift artistic maturation as demonstrated on Abbey Road and All Things Must Pass. And while I’ve never missed an opportunity to mention how little I care for Eric Clapton in this project, I must concede that his solo on this song is an exceptionally good one, and one of the few moments of emphatic instrumental prowess on the album. The rest of George’s songs feel a good deal less substantial, although I enjoy most of them. I could live without “Piggies,” though I like its startling, out of place little orchestral swell with accompanying oinks at the end. “Savoy Truffle” is almost literally a confection–or at least a song about confections–but its horn section grooviness gives the album one of its few energizingly soul-flavored moments. “Long Long Long” is so quiet and slight a song as to almost disappear on the the album, but it’s actually a minor favorite of mine. I think I could have used a slightly more focused sounding approach to the recording–and the vocal in particular–but the melody itself is a real little jewel, and some of the shimmering, droney sounds admittedly do support its kind of dreamy, opiated quality.
When I was a kid, someone gave me a tape of all the Beatles Christmas records–little messages that they would send out on a 45 to members of their fan club every year. Hearing them progress from year to year was a nice little summation of the changes they went through in such a short time. They start out all charming, polite yet cheeky, then after a few years they start sounding much more stoned–goofy and having fun with it, yet also a little ironically detached. And I think the last one literally sounds a lot like “Revolution 9.” I haven’t heard them in years, but listening to The White Album this time, I was reminded of them at a few different points. And I guess that is, in the end, part of this album’s charm–that the band was comfortable enough in their aesthetic triumphs of the years prior to cut a little loose on this one and try a host of new things–and to show some of the imperfections at the edges of their efforts. I think if they had never made Abbey Road—that is, never came back to doing more serious, polished work–this album would be more colored with the disappointing feeling that it was the beginning of the end. It feels enough like that as it is, and yet it also is full enough of great music and compelling stylistic contrasts that it nevertheless remains a great and mostly pleasurable album.
Source: LP. In the main, it’s my plan to listen to the remaining Beatles albums on the list on the new Mono pressings, which I haven’t been able to hear yet. But since the mono mix of this album is famously quite different from the much more familiar stereo mix, I abstained in this case. In any event, I was excited to get back to the favorite version I have, which I had never played on my current stereo. I have one of the better regarded pressings of this famously hard to get right album–the 1978 issue on white vinyl on the Apple label. Compared to most versions I’ve heard, it sounds really warm and tubey and substantial. It really does right a lot of the wrongs that one hears on lesser copies.
April 10, 2015
Coming up with something to say about this one feels almost like being asked to write a critical analysis of, say, the Gettysburg Address. The music contained on this collection is such an essential, enduring piece of who we are as a people that it feels difficult to find an angle on it–certainly not one that hasn’t already been gone over by the many brighter minds than mine who have tried.
I guess my main reaction in listening to this music this time around was a kind of “unbearable lightness of being” feeling. Like, how tenuous and unlikely and odd it is that this shy young mama’s boy should have it in him to make music powerful enough to alter the fabric of existence, and then that he should just kind of charm his way into a recording studio, and then that the guy who produced his records should be a genius in his own right who applied just the right sound to the unprecedented music being played in his studio to give it maximum impact. It’s all a goddamned miracle.
And sure, one could say that the effect that Elvis had on the world was something waiting to happen–a necessary schism in the zeitgeist that someone else would have ushered in if Elvis had never existed, or had never worked up the nerve to let out what was inside of him. One could also say (with greater existential authority) that the music that Elvis and his band and Sam Phillips came up with in these sessions was of a piece with larger developments–that Elvis didn’t invent rock ‘n roll, and that music of this general type would have and did come forth in other places and from other artists. But I think its also fair to say that Elvis was special and that the world I was born into would be a different place had Elvis never happened.
There are people who put forward the claim that Elvis’s version of “That’s Alright Mama” (released, I just discovered, on my Dad’s sixth birthday) is the first rock ‘n roll song, although almost any serious student of the music would take issue with that claim. Most other popular candidates for that designation, such as Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” or Wynonie Harris’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight” (Elvis’s version of which being, of course, one of the core tracks of his Sun recordings) were all recorded a number of years before Elvis first set foot in Sun Studios. But the real answer is that it’s probably a fool’s errand to try to assign that title to any one recording in what was in reality a long, fluid intertwinement of elements of blues, rhythm & blues and country music feeding off one another, reaching just about as far back as the existence of recorded sound. I recently heard the great Phil Alvin contend that a song Big Bill Broonzy recorded in the late 1920s (I forget the title) is his vote for the first rock ‘n roll song.
What needs a little more unpacking is the idea of Elvis as the first and best rock ‘n roller–the so-called king of rock n’ roll. It’s a contentious issue because there were a number of other artists at the time–most notably Chuck Berry and Little Richard–who were self-consciously positioning themselves as the figureheads of the new style of music that was solidifying into what we think of as rock ‘n roll. There’s an obvious racial critique here–that Chuck Berry and Little Richard wrote their own songs and played their instruments in innovative and exciting ways, but were held back from assuming a singular place in the popular imagination as the most important of the early rock ‘n roll artists at least in part because of middle America’s xenophobic wariness of their blackness. Elvis, by contrast, wrote no songs, played only a few perfunctory guitar chords, and while he met with a fair amount of his own shocked resistance from the stalwarts of American conservatism, it wasn’t all that many years before he acquired a more or less universally beloved status as a wholesome, American as apple pie sort of icon.
Certainly there’s some validity to the observation that Elvis’s success was perhaps disproportionate to the effort he put forth, and that there is a basic unfairness in the relative anonymity and lack of success endured by the many black artists whose music Elvis built his art upon interpreting. Where that criticism has gone too far, I think, is in a characterization of Elvis as an exploitive racist of limited talents, who became a huge star by appropriating African-American music without really understanding it, or giving it due respect. This line of interpretation has been largely discredited, though one still hears it occasionally repeated. Even Chuck D., who famous rapped that “Elvis never meant shit” to him and outright called him a racist has more recently recanted that position, acknowledging that actually, Elvis was incredibly well versed in black music, and highly respectful of it and the people who made it.
Unfortunately, lots of people who grew up listening to Public Enemy still parrot the “Elvis was a racist” idea, whereas he was really probably about as non-racist as a white guy born in 1930s Mississippi could possibly be. Lots of black musicians like James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard were extremely fond of Elvis, and many who spent time with him early on, like Ivory Joe Hunter, reported being impressed by the depth of Elvis’s deep knowledge in particular of gospel vocal group music. In the more measured view of the situation, Elvis is acknowledged to have given black music unprecedentedly wide exposure, to have been a very fine interpreter of it, and to have been one of the pivotal figures (along with Chuck Berry and others) who brought strains of black music together with country music, helping to forge the synthesis that became rock ‘n roll.
Even outside of race-based arguments, you find a certain strain of rockabilly snob who continues to insist that Carl Perkins should have been Elvis, but missed out on being so by just a few twists of fate. Indeed, Carl Perkins was great–one of the first important songwriters of rock ‘n roll, a great guitarist who influenced George Harrison among many others, and the author of one of Elvis’s most iconic early hits, “Blue Suede Shoes.” But he wasn’t Elvis. I think lots of the early pioneers of rock ‘n roll, the aforementioned and others, were extremely good and extremely important, and the more people who listen to them and know about them the better. But none of them were Elvis, or could have been Elvis. Only Elvis could have been Elvis, because only Elvis was Elvis.
What I mean by that rather silly statement is that there is a crackle of excitement to this music that is almost without either precedent or heir. (Though perhaps Little Richard came close.) I’ve been listening to the core tracks of this collection for most of my life, but even so, I still felt that chill run up my spine listening to it this around. There’s a peculiar quality to this music–to Elvis’s singing primarily, but to the entire recordings–that I can only really think of in terms of religious metaphors. For want of a better term, it has a kind of holy ghost power that is unrivaled by almost every singer I have ever heard, black or white, before or after. Certainly there are a handful–Ray Charles, Little Willie John, George Jones to name a few–who sang with a similar degree of supernatural authority. But very, very few. And with the possible exception of Ray Charles, almost none were in the position to fundamentally transform not just music but society as a whole in the way that Elvis did. As John Lennon famously put it, “before Elvis, there was nothing.”
In the face of such a mysterious power, analysis of the why and wherefore of it seems even more than usually useless. But I will say that I think part of it has to do with the peculiar mix of bashfulness and command–of repression and the return of the repressed–busting out all over in this music. By all accounts, Elvis was an exceptionally shy, awkward young man. Sam Phillips observed that he carried with him an aura of deeply internalized inferiority. But when he opens his mouth and sings, there is such an effortless kind of authority in his voice, a sense of releasing something that he can not keep inside him, and that he knows the world needs to hear. There’s a palpable eros in this music, a Nietzschean sort of reveling in a glorious internal power triumphing over the mechanisms that would bind it, and the effect feels positively enlightening.
Elvis’s greatness in the end is not most importantly about the ways he took the music that came before and mutated it into new possibilities. That stuff is important too, in a history of western music kind of way. But in a history of western civilization kind of way, Elvis was first and foremost like a messianic avatar of pure sex dropped right into the straight laced repressiveness of 1950s America. Much in the way that LSD would open up a lot of minds to the underlying unity of all things a decade later, Elvis was a similarly transformative agent, reintroducing an entire society to its disowned erotic impulses, and boy howdy did it feel good. (I would make the more apples-to-apples comparison with The Beatles, but Elvis’s impact feels more like the direct effects of a powerful drug taking hold.) His gyrations and his striking appearance were a part of that, of course, but what’s amazing is how clearly one hears it right in the music itself. Even if there had been no visual apparatus to broadly disseminate what Elvis looked like or danced like, I believe his music alone would have achieved a similar effect all on its own.
There exists a danger in confusing charisma with genius. Jim Morrison, for example, was a charismatic, but not a genius. Brian Wilson, the opposite. But I think in Elvis we find the point where those two concepts converge in a fairly singular way. He wasn’t a genius in the same rigorous, Mozartian sense that the term is generally used, but his power as a singer and a performer–which is partly but not entirely a function of charisma–achieved effects, both aesthetically and culturally, on a level that is typically the provenance of genius alone.
I guess to some extent singing exists in a category that is hard to reconcile with other forms of talent. Singers are often given short shrift, dismissed as the guys who hang around with musicians. And yet the voice is also the most fundamental instrument, and thus the one potentially most capable of achieving deep and uncanny emotional effect. There’s a scary sort of power that a truly great singer–particularly an unschooled one like Elvis–possesses that can’t really be bested by any degree of instrumental prowess or compositional genius. And that ultimately is why I think Elvis stands as the rightful and singular “kind of rock ‘n roll” over and above more broadly talented figures like Chuck Berry or Little Richard. Not that those guys couldn’t sing like hell too. And certainly Little Richard had his own sort of jaw-dropping charisma. But none quite compare to what Elvis was able to achieve in the most visceral, basic sense of musical connection.
It must be mentioned in passing, too, of course, that it is not only Elvis that makes these recordings so great and so important. His bandmates, Scotty Moore and Bill Black, are also owed a lot of the credit for coming up with the kind of driving, propulsive sound that helped define the compelling quality of rock ‘n roll, and which gave Elvis the best possible setting for his singular talents to unfold. And perhaps even more so, one must pay their respects to Sam Phillips’s remarkable production aesthetic–that shimmering, snappy reverb sound he applied to the music, focusing its inherent excitement into an eternally pleasurable, hauntingly resonant sound. While there’s a tendency to romanticize the simplicity and rawness of 1950s rock ‘n roll versus the more refined, artier rock of the 60s and beyond, Phillips provides a fine example of the ways in which a great deal of careful aesthetic decision making–real sonic artistry–already existed at the genre’s outset.
As I’ve said, the core tracks on this album–the ten songs that comprised the A and B sides of the five Elvis singles released and the handful of other great tracks that were later released by RCA on Elvis’s early albums–were all very familiar to me, so there weren’t any huge surprises in them. I was struck by how much better “Milk Cow Blues Boogie” is than I had remembered it. What with its hokey joke intro and all I always thought of it as one of the lesser tunes, but that’s far from true. The word “Baby” must surely be one of the most overly abused in the lexicon of rock ‘n roll, but listen to what Elvis does to it on this track–“don’t that old moon look lonesome when your ba-ay-ay-ay-by’s not around.” The nuance he squeezes out of that word is staggering.
I was reminded again how “Tryin’ to Get to You”–which is not one of the tracks released as a single–is perhaps my favorite of the bunch, or close to it. His version on the ’68 comeback special is that program’s highlight to me, as he rediscovers some of the fire of his youth in that song he loved so well, after too many years lost in the Hollywood wasteland. “Blue Moon” remains the most compellingly weird of the tunes, one of the most haunting and basically puzzling. “That’s Alright Mama” continues to crackle with the excitement of discovery that makes it one of the most important of all early rock n’ roll songs. The slap bass in “Baby Let’s Play House” gives Elvis himself a run for his money as that fine song’s most compelling element.
“Mystery Train,” I must confess, still doesn’t wow me quite as much as it’s supposed to. I guess I’ve always found its vaunted hauntingness to be more of an academic idea than a visceral reality for me. The imagery is vivid, and Scotty Moore’s propulsive rhythm unerringly trainlike. But the vocal, compared to some of the other tracks, has always felt a little too thickly laid on. But shhh, don’t tell anyone. It’s too important a track to criticize so blithely. I’m not saying it’s not great–just that I like some of the other tracks better in a way that many serious critics do not.
What I had never heard was a lot of the supplementary material this particular collection offers up–a treasure trove of alternate takes, rough early tracks and some live performances from around the same era. I often have limited patience for that sort of box-set exhaustiveness, and indeed, some of the stuff on here did drag on a bit. There was maybe one or two too many alternate takes of “You’re Right, I’m Left, She’s Gone” to wade through. But to a surprising extent, a lot of it was really quite revelatory and interesting to hear. Some of the studio banter and the different approaches they tried on various songs drives home the human element of this music–a couple of guys in a studio, probably somewhat aware they were doing something special, but with no idea of the massive reverberations it would have. The earlier cut of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” was especially cool to hear. It’s not nearly as frenetic as the familiar single version, and while it doesn’t lock into that transformative rock ‘n roll sound in quite the same way, it’s well on its way. I almost prefer it. At the conclusion, someone remarks “Wow, that’s really different–that’s like a pop song!”
I had my doubts about the live tracks going in, but I found that they rounded out the collection nicely, and provided a glimpse of the kind of excitement that Elvis was capable of generating as a live performer from the very beginning. There are also a couple of songs I’ve never heard him perform elsewhere, like Laverne Baker’s “Tweedle Dee Dee” and The Jewel’s “Hearts of Stone.” The latter in particular offers up a striking example of the constituent parts of early rock n’ roll, with this fairly deep cut r&b song being performed with a really frenetic pedal steel solo in the middle.
Many of the songs on this collection–which are helpfully front loaded on the first disc–are ones that I have listened to and loved since I was a kid, and I have no doubt that I will continue to do so for the rest of my life. This particular collection did a great job of fleshing out the broader context in which that hallowed, immutable music was made, bringing it back to its frail origins as the uncertain labor of mere mortals. Though you’d still be forgiven for mistaking Elvis for some kind of a god.
Source: CD. A friend recently gave me a nice vinyl set of the Complete Sun Sessions, and I reckon that’s the one I’ll listen to next time. But this particular collection, as far as I know, is CD only.