Once upon a time, there were two sides to every album. For “The White Album”, there were actually two albums.
The Beatles—which was the original name of the album—is a big record that has a lot on it. It was as a result of the public that it adopted its more blank-canvas name. And, the blank-canvas name seems to be appropriate. Because of its white color and seemingly eclectic collection of songs, it feels sometimes as if it’s a catalogue of what the Beatles happened to produce during a several-month period in a studio. But when contemplated, when listened to, looked at, and thought about a bit more, there does seem to be an essence to the album; a concept that can tie it all together. If “The White Album” can be reduced to one concept, it would have to be the idea of duality.
For the band, the premise when entering the studio was to move beyond the boundaries of the Sgt. Pepper album; as John Lennon himself put it in the mini-documentary that comes on the new re-mastered version of the album, “What I was going for was to forget about Sgt. Pepper... and get back to basic music.” But they did more than that. They pushed the limits of what a song ought to sound like, of what a song’s content ought to be about. And with that, they pushed the limits of what an album’s collective effect on a listener should be.
The Beatles pushed the limits on the “White Album” by employing a great range of sound and lyrical subject matter. Additionally, they juxtaposed binary oppositions. From a musical standpoint, there is the opposition of songs having clear tunes, like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, to songs that sound like they are just drifting by, or as in the case of, “Honey Pie”, like they are some strange chant of traveling musicians. A more obvious contrast of tune versus drifting by would be “Revolution 1” to “Revolution 9”. The former has a clear tune, complete with verse and chorus; “Revolution 9” drifts the listener through fragments of voices and studio effects.
The binaries that the album offers in terms of lyrical content serve to challenge the form of the song and the album rather than balance it; additionally, the binaries serve to challenge the listener. Juxtaposing songs to one another can offer up some interesting dualities. Songs like “Blackbird” and “Mother Nature’s Son” contain innocently worded messages delivered with gentle acoustic backdrops. In contrast, “Glass Onion” has rugged sound and deep, subconscious insights. But even analyzing an individual song proves to offer interesting opposing concepts. In “Blackbird”, the bird is “singing”—an active, lively verb—“in the dead of night”, connoting living action within the existence of deadness. The blackbird is to fly “Into the light of the dark black night.” Once again, oppositional elements are brought together with contradictory images.
The effect? A challenge to the listener’s sense of imagination. The listener perceives that there are hints at the make-believe and the fantastical in the songs. The album also challenges the sense of imagination with stories from other worlds. “Rocky Raccoon” and “Cry Baby Cry” are based on make-believe realms. “Rocky Raccoon”, is anthropomorphic in its narration of the raccoon. The mild treatment of the story, as evidenced by the song’s hokey tone, contrasts with the song’s violence. The contrast in tone to content in “Rocky Raccoon” gives the listener a strange sense of ambiguity. The song ends with Rocky in stable condition. But, considering his prior luck, what is one to expect of Rocky’s future?
The Beatles make the listener think in the episodic, or of the notion of In medias res. “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill”, is ongoing, though the name hints at Buffalo Bill, the icon from the wild west. The song is a mockery of American gun culture. The chorus includes what sounds like the accompaniment of children. This duality of innocence and insight serve the purpose of social criticism.
The social criticism of the album has its own duality as well. The criticism that the songs employ is not distinctly liberal; critical yes, but originally so. For example, “Revolution 1” is about the unoriginality of cultural revolutionaries (“we all want to change the world”). But, while the messages of social criticism on the album cannot be missed, they do not dominate the collective effect of the work, which is about the double-sidedness of things; from the basic fact that there are actually two records (or, nowadays two CDs), to the multitude of binaries and contrasts that the actual content of the album offers. But more simply, the collective effect of the album is about its sound. Listening to “The White Album”, is an experience of crisp drums, rugged guitar, and passionate vocals. While Lennon’s intent of getting back to “basic music” is understandable, I think they missed the mark, and arrived at “extraordinary” instead.
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