I've Just Seen a Face and more
11. I’ve Just Seen a Face
Most love songs are all about the yearning, inspiring soulful, longing melodies. At a short and galloping two minutes, “I’ve Just Seen a Face” tosses aside torchiness and really captures the giddy feeling of infatuation. Though the country- and bluegrass-inspired tune was written by Paul McCartney, and he does his own vocal harmonies on the recorded version, there’s none of his signature bass on the song, giving it the lightweight quality it needs to go sprinting to its conclusion.
Nothing is wasted in the song, and McCartney is barely given a spare moment to breathe between lines—there’s even some humming between the verses to propel the melody forward. The result replicates the fluttery, excited feeling of a new love (or at least the experience of listening to a friend gush on about a new interest); you can almost hear McCartney’s face flush as he admits, “as it is I’ll dream of her tonight”.
The song has been covered by everyone from the String Cheese Incident to Lucy Kaplansky, but one interpretation of the song rises above the others: Julie Taymor’s. Though many of her choices for her film Across the Universe can be debated and picked apart, she thoroughly nails the spirit of “I’ve Just Seen a Face”. As her characters bounce around a bowling alley, they goof off, steal each other’s balls, slide down the aisles in their bowling shoes, and do practically anything but toss the balls so they knock over the pins. That’s how an infatuation feels: joyful, lighthearted, energetic. How McCartney packed such euphoria into so few lines and stanzas is a mystery, but it makes the heart race just to hear the opening guitar-picked arpeggios.
It is often said that the Beatles matched the sweet with the salty better than any other band. This is too often reduced to a Lennon v. McCartney explanation—the “Hey Jude” a-side, “Revolution” b-side (or “Strawberry Fields”/“Penny Lane”, “Hello Goodbye”/ “I Am the Walrus”, etc) thing—but this clearly misses the point. At their best (at least in the pre-“White Album” era) it was their startling, collaborative, juxtaposition of the dark with the light that lifted the material, neatly avoiding schmaltz (most of the time) while still remaining grounded in attractive and harmonious pop structures.
The alienated man singing songs that refused to alienate the listener—this was the certain genius of the pre-Revolver Beatles. “Help!”, perhaps the finest example of this quintessential songwriting approach, fuses a brave admission of anxious disaffection with an inescapable melody. The result is disarmingly gorgeous even as it is quietly devastating. Imagine, a few years after “The Twist” and we’re singing along with such sentiments as: “Now and then I feel so insecure” and “My independence seems to vanish in the haze”. To re-imagine the popular song as a venue for confessions of dread, of anomie; to replace the constructed idea of the pop star as vulnerable and tragic by actually admitting to feelings of vulnerability and tragedy… From Neil Young to Kurt Cobain to Jeff Tweedy, this tune has had an indelible effect.
13. I’m Looking Through You
I’d known “I’m Looking Through You” for awhile, never paying it much mind, when I read that it was filmmaker Wes Anderson’s original choice to play his film The Royal Tenenbaums into its end credits. Rights issues scuttled his plan for a mostly-Beatles soundtrack, and his end-credits replacement, Van Morrison’s “Everyone”, is a lovely grace note in a lovely film. But this bit of trivia spurred my revisitation of this Rubber Soul gem, and, hey, that Anderson kid was on to something: the song is jaunty yet rueful, its lyrics (“you don’t look different, but you have changed”) made bittersweet by a jangling melody and a great little up-tempo riff punctuating McCartney’s observations. “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight,” he sings, and it all sounds so casual from a band that just a few years earlier displayed a mastery of unabashed love songs. It may not inspire the deep love of its lovey-dovier album neighbors (“Girl” on one side, the incomparable “In My Life” on the other), but it’s the kind of album cut that makes the Beatles the best rather than merely great.
14. Dear Prudence
“Dear Prudence” is like the perfect gift—based on thoughtfulness and wrapped with beauty. It’s about Prudence Farrow who, along with sister Mia and the Beatles, traveled to Rishikesh, India to meditate under the spell of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Prudence had had enough this day, but in this song, her friends try to convince her to mobilize her mantra one more time.
“Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play, greet the brand new day, the sun is up, the sky is blue, it’s beautiful and so are you”: such childlike lyrics sung by an emotional Lennon. In the background a hypnotic, repetitive interval—starting out as a major third—set against a thrashing descending bass line. There’s an absolutely beguiling balance between Lennon’s heart-felt plea of friendship and the slowly unraveling sounds that serve as counterpoint. And, the chorus (simply: “look around round round…”) is sung by the other lads in a stark, low, growl much like a Gregorian chant (or, perhaps, an offering of Om). But, the starkness surprisingly jetstreams into some angular guitar work. As it returns, Lennon’s voice evokes innocence and the raw hope of true friendship. By this point, we’re absolutely dying to see Prudence “open up her eyes”, burst out of the door and join her alpha-state seeking friends. Now, if we could only reach nirvana.
15. Eleanor Rigby
It is almost absurd to consider a song to be a form of literature. But if any song could be thought of in such a way, it would be this one: a Beatles song that no Beatle played an instrument on. The song tells a story of loneliness and isolation. It paints vivid characters, evoking empathy and pathos. Paul McCartney tells us of the sadness and melancholy in the lives of Eleanor and Father McKenzie in a two-minute pop song; many authors can’t reach this kind of depth in 300 pages.
The foregoing of conventional rock instruments in lieu of a string arrangement only adds to the power to the piece. The lives on display might be sad and a bit pathetic, but the music shows that there is dignity and resolve there as well. This is an important story that needs to be told, and stands as an example of McCartney at his finest. It broke the boundaries of what a pop song should be and set the bar higher for those who came after. It deserves its place in the pantheon of the Beatles finest songs.