Forgive the fact that this anniversary was last fall; I wrote this then, but didn’t publish it here until now
The most famous band in the world naming an album after themselves sounds like a mark of certainty, even hubris. They don’t need another name, no album title to serve as postscript, subtitle, or anteroom for the main attraction. They’re The Beatles, dammit. And this post-summer-of-love album is The Beatles, 30 whole songs of them. The title’s self-conscious striving toward monumentality aims for essence, for the answer, for an obelisk-like encryption-key to decode what makes The Beatles themselves. And it may actually achieve this monumentality, but not because the album offers any conclusions or solutions. Rather than statement, The Beatles’ totemic title is more of a mimic for the famous album cover: negative visual space, a cover and a title so basic and obvious that, rather than explaining the band in the plainest of terms, they offer a blank canvas upon which every audience member can ponder their opinion of the band.
And those pondering, of course, include all four members of the band themselves, all of whom at times seem to use the colloquially-titled White Album as a way to disentangle themselves from what they by all accounts felt to be a noxious interpersonal communion, to ponder if anything of The Beatles was really worth saving. Naturally, they only end up tangling themselves further. More than on any other Beatles album, The White Album is the one where their individual voices seem to bleed and contort, separating out into specific quadrants (such that some songs are only by McCartney, only by Lennon, only by Harrison, etc) while paradoxically blurring to the point where it is exceedingly difficult to actually put one’s finger on what constitutes a “Lennon song” or a “McCartney song” anymore in the first place. The band turn their identities into a centrifuge of discreet sounds and sensations which, pointedly, never collect themselves into any cohesive, singular, or easily-mappable perspective. Which is to say: The White Album, to cop a cliché, exceeds the sum of its parts, but specifically because it fails to do so, because it is an accumulation of song-styles which cannot be summed-up or summarized into a larger “vision”. The act of making the album pulled the band apart, and, aurally speaking, the album’s sound doubles that breakage. The results are gloriously dysfunctional.
In 1968, of course, this chaos was generally understood as a positive: the band feverishly grasping toward the freedom of un-genre, following any waterway to new sound they could find, a particularly enchanted case-study in the hippie dream of perpetual experimentation. A band scouring the outermost regions of their potential. One year later, the far-flung drifting turned to be a first flicker of catastrophe, the most polyphonic album from a band whose hydra-heads were disentangling from one another to the point of self-splitting. There are so many new tributaries of sound opened up on The Beatles that it feels at once disappointing, prophetic, and ultimately galvanizing that they all can’t but lead to the band’s River Styx.
Fifty years after the fact, then, The Beatles reads much more pessimistically, as the scatterbrained scrawling of four people who just couldn’t get it together or agree on much anymore. Each new song seems to foreclose the possibility that the prior was a successful way to organize an album, each new style a kind of grasping for oxygen and rejuvenating air. This is the sound of a band ever in search of a genre that could contain their various sonic uncertainties, cries for help, soul-searchings, wayward paths, all torturously weaved into a crazy-quilt of textures where the threads unravel from the other end.
It’s deep, psychically confused stuff, in other words, even when it conspicuously isn’t. Even the most defiantly superficial song, McCartney’s frivolous nonsensical “Ob-La-Di,” sounds like a carnival chant from hell if viewed in bas relief on the album, a song straining so hard to project an image of late ‘60s flower-power optimism and essentialized free-form innocence that it sounds almost maniacal. Unlike Lennon’s famously soul-searching, insular persona, McCartney tended to avoid the hermetically inward (see the gloriously impressionistic, outward-observing “Penny Lane”). But on The Beatles, even he, like the whole band, seems so wound-up that his attempts to unwind feel like they’re written under duress. The song actually bears an affinity with its ostensible opposite, the blistering, downright vicious “Helter Skelter,” a nervous wreck of a tune, a premonition of social unfastening, and an apocalyptic chasm out of which the primordial ooze of metal itself would crawl up. One song is jittery and the other jaunty, but both seem to embody the zeitgeist’s implosion.
Admittedly, Lennon’s contributions generally aren’t as incandescent as his 1967 output – the pained plea “All you Need is Love,” the edge-of-sanity epic “I Am the Walrus,” the truly ethereal “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and the cacophonous, melancholic “A Day in the Life”. But his more tossed-off affairs here run his earlier pop aspirations ragged, forging a path toward the more troubled waters Lennon would brave in the ‘70s. One can detect the inchoate mutterings of the scuzzy, acid-washed “Cold Turkey” or “Instant Karma” in Lennon’s contributions, especially the brutal howl “Yer Blues” and the rampaging, paranoiac “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey,” not to mention the plaintive, hollowed-out “Julia” and “Dear Prudence”. And certainly the thorny, questioning, post-modern “Glass Onion,” the natural rival of McCartney’s opening “Back in the USSR,” both songs where the band impishly but neurotically conducts a little personal brand management on a globally-bifurcated stage.
These songs, collectively, are tatters, an experimental unraveling of any pretension toward cohesion. A bricolage of textures, sounds, nodes that double as sonic fissures in both the psychological topography of the band and the world around them, most obviously so when Lennon breaches new territory on the continually metastacizing “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” a particularly mischievous fault line that parodies and sidewinds through every major pop musical form of the prior twenty years. And that’s without even mentioning the violently exploratory 12-minute take tenuously stitched together by the title “Revolution 9”. An Ouroborus of a song, it crests and collapses and circles back to devour itself without an anchor. It’s much more of a formal embodiment of the stumbling, searching, and staggering political meditation at the heart of the song than the more famous (and more conventionally great) version of the song, which sounds more certain and assured, to its benefit but not necessarily its fascination.
In between Starr chiming in with “Don’t Pass Me By,” a much more plaintive country-western piece than his later “Octopus’ Garden,” George Harrison also provides four songs, two per disc. His two “lesser” offerings – the cynical children’s book “Piggies” and the morbidly sarcastic “Savoy Truffle” – are self-consciously trivial larks, folding social critique into Pythonesque absurdisms. But it’s the dramatic soundscape of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” admittedly his most conventional contribution here, which has floored critics and audiences for decades, an epochal number which signals a kind of ascendance to the status of the two more famous Beatles songwriters whose successes continue to shroud Harrison. To my tastes, though, the most beguiling of Harrison’s songs here is the spectral “Long, Long, Long,” a wandering premonition of this most mystical Beatles’ later aspirations to escape from his mortal coil. Rather than transcendence, though, Harrison’s weathered, weak voice smothered by Phil Spector’s wall of sound sonically renders a portrait of submerged hopes and dreams, an inescapable drowning. It’s as though ascendance requires a complete dissolution of his voice and self into the waters of the world, a communion of music and voice. It suggests a search for timelessness and timeliness that seems as much out of time.
It’s hard to write about The White Album without the tortured geography of the band overshadowing the music, but that climate – a particular combination of drug-caked cloud and toxic windstorm – is also the space out of which the music emanates. Not to mention what makes the album so hard to decode, all the more so on this new version. One would want to hope that, despite all the turmoil, The White Album was a centripetal path toward completion, the original version of the album safely ensconced as a kind of final relief, the logical and perfect endpoint of a process of trial and error. But the outtakes don’t reveal lesser-than also-rans doomed to be left on the cutting room floor; they don’t suggest that the band “figured out” the right version of the album in 1968. One might suggest that The White Album was pop’s first true universal, an attempt to contain multitudes, to cover all-bases, but the outtakes here suggest other unexplored directions and ways which could have been. The album that was released defies perfection.
If so, the album’s greatest gift to humanity is its resulting un-mastery, its liberation from the assumption that the goal is to master album form and sound. Its failure to cohere reveals a fugitive awareness that universality is not as simple as “All You Need is Love” or any trans-humanist notion of the “basic human experience”: The White Album was never going to speak for everyone, or speak to every genre, to encapsulate any totality. Universality, insofar as it can exist, might be better understood as the elastic, ana-formative, contrapuntal process of grasping for sounds and secrets, truths and tremors, all of which exceed any one voice and cannot be collectivized into a perfect, harmonious entity. In doing so, the album suggests that this act of reaching implies a kind of understanding that need not imply actually touching or finally holding what one grasps. It may not require full understanding, does not necessarily lead to final revelation. It’s a process, an iterative act of becoming liberated from the belief that one can be all-knowing, that one can sound on every aspect of the human experience for everyone and capture every genre, perspective, or flavor of existence. The White Album, insofar as it represents both the band’s greatest success and failing, insofar as it definitively and defiantly refuses coherence, effuses universality without univocity. It suggests that an album ought to not “encapsulate” – in the sense of nail, master, contain, or complete – so much as explore. It need not suture together any kind of linear, finished story or greater whole, offering instead a partial, provisional, unfinished, and thus workable and reworkable world of sound and experience.