It's All Too Much?
By now, this year’s annual holiday-concurrent repackaging of the Beatles’ catalog has made its expected infiltration into the consciousnesses of pop culture and popular consumerism. Love, the eponymous soundtrack to Cirque du Soleil’s extravagant Vegas show, is a cut-and-paste reimagining of Beatles songs assembled by the band’s longtime producer, George Martin, and his son Giles from the original master tapes. (It debuted at #3 and #4 on the UK and US charts, respectively.) The record itself plays like an uninterrupted 80-minute mix of the Beatles’ brief epoch, segueing from song to song, deemphasizing the demarcations between the beat and psychedelic years and instead affirming newfound thematic correlations; many songs, and most song transitions, incorporate miscellaneous tracks from other songs that mesh in uncannily sympathetic ways. Where there are not creative audio mash-ups, there is immaculate fidelity: “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, “I Am the Walrus”, and “Revolution”, to name a few, are left largely unsullied, and have never sounded better on the compact disc format. The visceral presence of Paul McCartney’s bass on “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” or Ringo Starr’s supremely tasteful drum fills in “A Day in the Life”, for example, are reasons alone to hear the new mixes. (The entire Beatles catalog was transferred to CD in 1987 and, with the exception of the material facelifted for the Yellow Submarine soundtrack, Let It Be… Naked, and the 1 greatest-hits package, remains in dire need of remastering and, in certain cases, monophonic reformatting.)
Knowing Beatles records is like having the proverbial back-of-the-hand map always at the ready. Their familiarity breeds comfort—even casual listeners, knowingly or not, have the majority of the Beatles’ catalog embedded in their subconscious—but comfort is a deceptive luxury. Comfort can lead to a certain kind of obsessive-compulsive dependence on what we perceive as being unalterable; technically, this is what audio recordings, fixed pieces of aural permanence, are meant to offer us. It’s impossible, then, not to have an interactive relationship with Love, to alternate between frustration and surprise, to aggressively dissect the songs while engaging them. So many voices and instruments are in the wrong place in the Martins’s new mixes, and although they all hail from the same Abbey Road-originated universe, they call attention to their numerous self-created discrepancies; consequently, we’re frequently readjusting the expectations that have remained otherwise intact for decades. When “Drive My Car” subtly inherits the horns from “Savoy Truffle” in its chorus, it takes a moment for the juxtaposition to register; both the horns and the chorus are known to us, delaying our detection of the track’s come-together bastardization. Similarly, when McCartney’s tattered guitar solo from “Taxman” replaces and then segues back into “Drive My Car”‘s solo, it’s a witty sleight-of-hand edit that makes perfect structural sense (oddly enough) and gives us pause. Did that really just happen? Or has that always happened, for years and years and countless listens, and I’m only now noticing it?
History has proven Martin to be not only the heir apparent to the so-called “fifth Beatle” throne, but as important as the band itself, a classical man whose buttoned-down utilitarianism became an unexpected complement to the Beatles’ epidemic of innovative impulses. He exercises none of that characteristic restraint with Love, which is all about remolding the familiar into something aggressively new. It seems that Martin has no reservations about rewriting pop gospel, the blueprint for all modern pop recordings that he helped create. Indeed, Martin takes his greatest liberty not with the many songs he reassembles, but with one he explicitly repaints: George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is represented here by a solo acoustic demo, supplemented by Martin’s newly written string arrangement. In a program of intriguing what-ifs, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” suggests an alternate history—an implication that’s at once easy to deny and tempting to explore.
For their biggest and brashest trick, the Martins use cut-and-paste methodology to saturate certain songs with noise-laden crescendos akin to the original wall-of-sound build-up in “A Day in the Life”. This quickly becomes a somewhat transparent device for the project at large: the bigger-is-better audio-mastering attitude, wrought by the advent of 5.1 surround sound (a format in which Love is available and, incidentally, betrays the important fact that the Beatles themselves spent most of their career mixing in front of one speaker, for crying out loud) and theatrical grandiosities such as, well, Cirque du Soleil. As a result, the intricacies of the original Beatles recordings are easily overwhelmed by the cake-layer construction of Love‘s fantastical jigsaw. “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, instead of being allowed its trippy coda of sound effects, tumbles directly into the hulking refrain of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, which is further intensified by the addition of the vocals from “Helter Skelter”; and “Strawberry Fields Forever”, which cycles through various demo recordings before flowering into the official single version—a sort of reverse onion-peel reconstruction—has its finale piggybacked by the orchestral interlude of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, the piano solo from “In My Life”, the trumpet solo from “Penny Lane”, the harpsichord and cello from “Piggies”, and, finally, the coda from “Hello Goodbye”.
These new edits and juxtapositions are not all executed solely for the sake of audio explosion, however. Stylistic and thematic harmony plays a large role in exactly how the disparate track pieces are aligned. The “Strawberry Fields Forever” finale noted above, for example, incorporates many of the band’s classically ornate instrumental augmentations; in a way, it offers a shorthand musical essay detailing Martin’s classical influence. In harmonic terms, the big mash-up also realigns the “Hello Goodbye” melody under the chord structure of “Piggies”, effectively altering the points of emphasis embedded within the former’s refrain. The “Octopus’s Garden” track pulls in elements from songs associated with Starr: the strings from “Good Night” and sound effects from “Yellow Submarine” congeal around Starr’s lead vocal for the title track. The “Within You Without You”/“Tomorrow Never Knows” mash-up, perhaps the most thrilling and effective track on the entire disc, fuses two especially transcendental songs into one: Harrison’s vocal melody from the former rides atop the rhythm-track drone of the latter, a union of two ambiguous, open-ended declarations of spiritual pursuit. (More obvious, of course, are the acoustic-guitar alignments of “Blackbird” and “Yesterday”, as well as the plaintive partnership of “Eleanor Rigby” with “Julia”.)
The Beatles’ music has long been finding new contexts within the continuing evolution of contemporary pop music, from the sample-strewn pastiches of the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique to DJ Danger Mouse’s vastly overrated guerrilla project, The Grey Album, which crudely combined The Beatles [White Album] with Jay-Z’s The Black Album. The Grey Album‘s concept was stronger than its execution; conversely, Love‘s execution is stronger than its concept gives it any right to be. One reason why it’s so easy to accept this project’s distortion of well-known legacy is a simple matter of conceptual déjà vu. The Beatles orchestrated their own sympathetic song-fragment and musique concrète mash-ups back in the ‘60s; in fact, they were the first pop band to utilize studio overdubbing on such a large, daring scale. “A Day in the Life” is perhaps the best example, a masterpiece in fragmental synthesis that found Frankensteinian unity in two incongruent songs coupled with an aural Band-Aid of experimental noise. Likewise, the original recordings of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)” were assembled from linking together a number of takes, while “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”, “Yellow Submarine”, and “I Am the Walrus” incorporated tangles of sound effects into their otherwise normal structural frames. So while Love can be an overwhelming sonic maelstrom, it’s not without its very relevant historical bearings.
Love doesn’t end with the top-to-bottom orchestral swell from “A Day in the Life”, which would have been both painfully obvious and appropriate. Instead, the project’s long embrace of finality, which does begin with that iconic piano-chord bang, is drawn out as an extended series of “emotional stock-taking” songs: first, the anthemic “Hey Jude”, then “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise)”, and finally, “All You Need Is Love”, one of the weaker songs in the Beatles’ ouvre, but an all-encompassing statement of their raison d’être nonetheless. It’s a less revealing coda than the project merits. In the web of song fragments that precedes it, we re-learn how the Beatles’ recordings are all one big network of inescapable synchronicity: the vocals of “Sun King”, played backwards, work as a seamless introduction to the gravity-defying grace of “Something”; “What You’re Doing” impeccably mirrors “Drive My Car” in rhythm and groove; the dueling guitars from “The End” are a natural fit atop the main vamp to “Get Back”; and so on and so forth. Love proves that everything is, in fact, everything—even when everything’s in its wrong place.