Review Summary: Who knew that a "transitional" album would sound so great?
As bands progress in their career, it's usually inevitable for their sound to mature in the process. Even teenage adolescent punk groups and bubblegum pop artists have a time when they throw away at least SOME of their young touch behind in favor for something new (even though there ARE some exceptions)... and what better band is there to represent that than The Beatles?
Since 1962's famous Please Please Me, The Beatles rose to superstardom, already becoming one of the most formidable forces of their era. Their simple pop/rock songs were addictive and fascinating to the point that they still see a great deal of airplay even today. By 1965, however, things were changing for the band. They started taking different influences than they had in the past, two of the most important during this time being Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys. This all resulted in a serious reduction in live performances and one of the most controversial Beatles releases, 1965's Rubber Soul.
This is most commonly seen as The Beatles' "transitional album, but in their case, is that really a bad thing? This album collects almost all the styles that the band were famous for, and drops them in a mixing pot. What would come of this is a unique musical concoction and a streak of brilliance. In here, you'll find rock, jazz, folk, blues, Indian music (hear the sitar on "Norwegian Wood), and even Greek music in spots! This caused a bit of a debate on whether it could be considered the first progressive rock album, but who cares? The quality is more important, as well as the old question: does this album stand the test of time? It does in SPADES.
One thing that stands out is the musical innovation at work here. You'll hear then-inventive instrumentation like using a sitar, a fuzzbox (a bass fuzzbox, I might add), and a classical harpsichord-esque piano. Sounds like these were quite uncommon to rock music (other than some sitar use on Rolling Stones' "Paint it, Black") and only gave The Beatles more free reign to work their experimental magic in the studio. The complexity of the music was also a standout during this era, as the album was among the first to have such varying tempos and to step away from the original confines of what pop music was back then.
However, what is it that really elevates this album to such a high pedestal in the music world. Really, it's because of how well the band combined their tastes and influences into a cohesive whole. Unlike their previous albums, The Beatles seemed to finally be in this together despite now have multiple different musical identities to work with. Thus Rubber Soul, despite the title, shows a more pure, emotional aspect that most bands could only hope to achieve in the pop realm of the 60's.
When the album opens with "Drive My Car", it's a little bit of a tease as you can hear many glimpses of old Beatles pop magic, of course with an extra rock edge this time around; When you're greeted with "Norwegian Wood", though, everything totally takes a shift in pace. Now sitar and acoustic guitar work take the reins as John Lennon sings of an affair away from his wife Cynthia, and the consequences regarding it all. It seems so surreal that a band talking about young love less than a year before this is now taking on such mature subject matter, but it works perfectly with the somber songwriting.
Speaking of somber, listen to "Michelle" and "Girl" as well. These are a few of the songs that utilize that Greek sound mentioned above, as well as some lyrical innovations such as Paul McCartney singing in French on "Michelle", which led to it being one of their most successful songs in said country (very similar to Queen's "Teo Torriatte" in Japan). Both songs are done in a pretty contrasting style, being in a "melancholy swing" if you will. Both utilize astounding vocal harmonies that would make The Beach Boys proud, and the acoustic lines were beyond their time, but what really stood out is how dark and depressing the songs were in terms of pop culture back then. The Beatles knew their audience weren't stupid, and they could take what the band threw back at them, so this became a plus for the band in future years with songs like "Eleanor Rigby."
The award for the best song, however, goes to the extraordinary "I'm Looking Through You;" where the hell do I begin with this one? It starts out with another acoustic guitar line, one that might have influenced Queen's "39." When the drums and vocals come in, though, it's pure magic. The lyrics speak of Paul McCartney's unhappy relationship with then-girlfriend Jane Asher, but he reflects then in a very unique way. He doesn't spew out anger or act mopey in any way, he simply acknowledges it in a deep thoughtful way. Emotion is where this song really shines, and is shows that you don't have to be insanely complex with your sound to make a fantastic, flowing piece of musical heaven.
This is the album that really elevated The Beatles to a higher plane in their career, as well as opening up so many possibilities for their sound to open up and branch out. A higher level of experimentation would be the next plan for the group, but with that said, this is the album that made it all happen. If you haven't given Rubber Soul a listen lately, dust it off and give it a try; you may really be surprised.
John Lennon: lead and backing vocals, rhythm guitar, six and twelve string acoustic guitars, electric piano, harmonium, tambourine, cowbell, maracas
Paul McCartney: lead and backing vocals, lead and acoustic guitars, bass, fuzz bass, acoustic and electric piano
George Harrison: lead, rhythm and acoustic guitars, twelve string acoustic and electric guitars, sitar on "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)", bass, lead and backing vocals
Ringo Starr: drums, tambourine, maracas, cowbell, lead vocals on "What Goes On", Hammond organ on "I'm Looking Through You"
"I'm Looking Through You"
"Drive My Car"
"In My Life"