Sure, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band may get all of the front page glory in rock magazines. Yeah, “The White Album” may provide a fascinating glimpse into the splintering of the Fab Four. And of course, Revolver is regularly heralded at the tip-top of best-of lists as the greatest long-player ever recorded (and deservedly so). For most intents and purposes, though, Rubber Soul was the Beatles’ great leap forward, and in a very important sense, their defining recording document. It may not have all of the storied romanticism of their latter-day records, and the kinetic energy of their early years may have been missing, but never before and never again had any recording unit tapped into such a vast wealth of emotional depth as John, Paul, George, and Ringo had here. This was the sound of the four greatest musicians in the history of pop music simultaneously firing from all corners at their absolute peak, their songwriting prowess stunning in its resonance and their ensemble playing unrivaled in its rich, absorbing unity. Time has not only illustrated how enveloping and wondrous the music created here is, it’s strengthened its level of endurance for an entirely new generation of fans.
It’s impossible to view Rubber Soul in an isolated light without considering its follow-up, Revolver: George Harrison has said himself that he viewed the records as two parts of one whole, opposite flipsides to a coin. While the expanded production can’t be understated on the art-pop of Revolver, it’s important to note how impossible that feat would have been without the breakthroughs in craftsmanship offered on Rubber Soul. Indeed, what’s immediately gripping about the album is the warmth offered in the sound of the record: the closely mic’d interplay between largely acoustic instrumentation, the organic yet lush recording techniques sprouting such aural intimacy between the band members, these elements lending the material its melancholic tone and enhancing the heartbreaking tales of emotional maturity and romantic ambiguity involved. While Beatlemania had displayed an exuberance in pop music that’s hardly been bettered in the near-half decade since its cultural ubiquity, that peak in joyous celebration culminated in the most beautiful hangover in the history of recorded sound.
The Beatles had experimented with folk-rock aspirations in the past (Help!), and it wasn’t the first time they offered such a cohesive, tight and focused batch of corresponding songs (A Hard Day’s Night), but there was something revelatory going on here. Songwriting in pop music had never been as universal without sacrificing its humanity, and that’s the keyword when discussing the merits of Rubber Soul: how utterly, engrossingly human it is. It’s easy to get caught up in the songs themselves—their peerless hooks and melodious delivery as intoxicating as the Fab Four’s most instantly accessible Merseybeat—only to later realize how many layers of intricacy and feeling are wrapped up in them. Much has been written and expounded about the bittersweet perfection in the complementary meeting between sad words and happy music, yet never before or since has it been executed in such a stirring, affecting fashion, totally lacking artifice and consistently offering new perspectives on love and life with each subsequent listening experience, whether it be your picturesque initial moment as a baby boomer reveling in your first spin on vinyl, or your millionth play as a weathered music fan well into your middle-age during the digital era. The value and gratification of these tunes will never, ever diminish, and that’s a testament to the flawless construction of these brilliantly crafted 14 songs.
So with the strength of this record laid out (the superlative songwriting), let’s explore exactly what makes this album so special. With pleasantries embellished with his own unique vocal approach dotting past Beatles releases, George’s contributions to Rubber Soul really kickstarted the flourishing talent in his abilities as a songwriter. The jangly, Byrds-saluting “If I Needed Someone” exudes a tender vulnerability masked behind a thinly-veiled curtain of hesitation, its beauty counter-balanced by its humility, keeping it from being just another lovely piece of folk-pop and raising it to a new level entirely. On “Think For Yourself”, he unthinkably lends an air of elegance to his menace, preventing a scathing attack on an unnamed peer from slinking into righteousness, the fuzztones in guitar and bass solidifying a sturdy, supportive backdrop for the venom in his message.
Paul’s songs, while potentially feeling slight without close inspection in comparison to the boundless maturity spun by his band mates, over repeated spins reveal themselves as cries of frustration slung with an unrivaled balance of disarming open-heartedness and shameless grace. “You Won’t See Me” just might be the Beatles’ lost masterpiece, the lush, gorgeous harmony vocals from John and George punctuating the swooping melody and disheartened core of McCartney’s ripe performance, his rallying cry calling out a lover intensified by how hypnotically arranged the track is—the perfect pop song. “I’m Looking Through You” offers a similar take on scorned love, the piercing, striking trills of Ringo’s organ underlining the urgency in McCartney’s wake-up call: a surging lament for lost innocence that manages to find comfort in the matter-of-fact yet hard-won lesson that “love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight”. Even his tossed-off piece of fluff—which would later in the band’s career cause a snowballing amount of friction that would eventually fracture the camaraderie between John and Paul—in “Michelle” is saved by its savvy Greek guitar lines and galloping vocal rhythms, serving as an oasis in the desert, a respite from all of the hangdog tales of lost love swirling throughout the record.
Still, for all of the growth inherent in George’s and Paul’s songwriting, it’s John who really towers above the rest in terms of revitalizing what could be achieved emotionally in a pop song. Here, we’re bestowed with the sitar-laced “Norwegian Wood”, whose up-and-down melody structure mirrors the back-and-forth complexity of the story at hand, John’s rough-hewn vocal delivery suppressing its wounded nature with a playful instrumental arrangement. “Girl”‘s opening breath is heartbreaking from the get-go, and that’s before we’re even introduced to a woman who “puts you down when friends are there” and “acts as if it’s understood” when you say she’s “looking good”. John’s wistful lament is afforded extra heft by just how rueful and weary he sounds, a feeling aided by his resignation in the opening line’s torn-up sentiments of inferiority: “is there anybody going to listen to my story?”
On “Nowhere Man”, a track often spotlighted for being the Fab Four’s first complete removal from stories of romantic love altogether, John’s self-loathing hits a boiling crest, folding in restlessly on itself, the monotony in the sprawling melody and the chugging, chiming guitar lines exacerbating the feelings of worthlessness inhabiting the song’s four empty corners of burning isolation. Rarely do pop musicians display so much humanity and honesty in such a baring, bruising manner.
This is all before we even get to “In My Life”, the greatest song in the history of pop music. Avoiding mawkish saccharinity or fatal morbidity by furnishing existential thoughts with a rising coda of self-awareness and love-is-all sentiment, this spinning wheel of human experience ticked by with strolling patience provides a touching, window-peaking glimpse into what makes life so worthwhile and beautiful, even with all of its heartaches and tribulations. And, coming from “the cynical Beatle”, with an arrangement making the case for teamwork as music’s saving grace, it’s all the more moving.
So, the next time you spin Rubber Soul, pay close attention to the reactions and emotional responses you feel from song-to-song. By mourning what makes life so dour and confusing at times, the four greatest musicians to ever take the cultural stage also offered us what makes it so beautiful with its emotive, empathetic execution. While covering so many different facets of the human experience, and driving it home with such fulfilling, reverberating poignancy, the Beatles found a way to not only make music life-changing, but life-affirming as well.
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