[8 November 2006]
Living in the Material World (1973), George Harrison’s fourth solo album and second following the break-up of the Beatles, was a return to humble pop music after experimental asides (1968’s Wonderwall Music and 1969’s Electronic Sound) and sprawling artistic liberation (1970’s three-LP All Things Must Pass) were shaken from his then-prolific system. It was his second #1 album in three years (it would also be the last #1 album of his career), and in a year inundated with solo Beatles’ hit singles (Paul McCartney’s “Hi, Hi, Hi”, “Live and Let Die”, and “My Love”; Ringo Starr’s “Photograph”), boasted the effervescent “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)”, a #1 single that remains one of Harrison’s most iconic and well-loved—both the album and the single knocked McCartney and Wings from the top of the charts.
“Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” would come to define Harrison’s post-Beatles “signature” sound, even retroactively to some: the weeping slide guitars that slink around its wistful melody would later be used on the Beatles’ Anthology “reunion” tracks, “Free As a Bird” and “Real Love”, even though the slide-guitar style was never an element of the Beatles’ original recordings. More importantly, however, the song is a simple and effective distillation of Harrison’s ongoing unification of the spiritual and the secular, stowing open-faced prayer within Top-40 commercialism. Harrison had moved on from his mid-‘60s fascination with Indian instrumentation and motif; a song like “Give Me Love” reflects more the Bob Dylan of John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, or even earlier influences like Carl Perkins (the sticky near-yodel of “heart and so-ou-oul” signaled Harrison’s deep-seated country-music bias). “Give Me Love” is as straightforward as All Things Must Pass’ spiritual-seeking songs like “My Sweet Lord” and “Hear Me Lord”, but its functional production and acoustic genesis, devoid of Phil Spector’s cluttered ostentation, serve a more direct purpose.
For the most part, Living in the Material World follows its lead-off track by dropping the Spectorized sound overall (its production was credited to Harrison alone), although the chorus of “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” guns for plumped-up bombast and “Try Some, Buy Some” (originally intended for Ronnie Spector) had been recorded during the All Things Must Pass sessions. The effect of the album’s stripped-down sound is one of intimate petition rather than thunderous extravagance, noteworthy given the thematic similarities to its weighty predecessor. Both albums search and pine for spiritual transcendence, but where All Things Must Pass is weighted with cathedral-grade significance, Living in the Material World suffers from a more anonymous tract. “Be Here Now” and “Who Can See It” are rendered a little too slow-moving and dramatically anemic by the unfussy atmosphere—tracks like these, in particular, would have benefited from the hyper-drama of All Things Must Pass’ resonant abyss. The title track and “The Lord Loves the One (That Loves the Lord)”, the album’s most uptempo rock songs, fare much better as eager bids for secession from this life, or at least from the clutches of its material concerns.
“Sue Me, Sue You Blues” provides the one true break from the record’s otherwise pervasive philosophical musings; its passive-aggressiveness feels at odds with the album in general. It’s a sarcastic response to the acrimonious elements in Harrison’s lawsuit-addled life at the time, including the ongoing fall-out from the Beatles’ break-up and the Chiffons-ignited plagiarism suit against “My Sweet Lord”. The track sounds a lot like the mid-tempo blues-based numbers on John Lennon’s Imagine (1971) (not surprising, given the musicians that the two shared on their early ‘70s recordings), but its lineage is more aligned with Harrison’s own “I Me Mine”, which “Sue Me” effectively rewrites minus the subtlety. Harrison would pad later releases with more clunkers than here, but Living in the Material World was the first in what would be a long, steady line of inconsistent albums. (No Beatle, arguably, was any different, releasing his best solo work immediately after the band’s dissolution.)
The CD/DVD deluxe version of Capitol/EMI’s new reissue of Living in the Material World bestows lavish attention upon a record that may not exactly deserve it. While the remastered audio is a crisp and welcome update to inferior transfers of the past and the packaging is sleek and attractive, the DVD seems an unnecessary bonus. It’s made up of a meager assortment of scraps, including a 1991 performance of “Give Me Love” in Japan and brief footage of the original vinyl being pressed and stuffed. The other audio clips (an alternate version of the b-side “Miss O’Dell” and a solo demo of “Sue Me, Sue You Blues”) are merely set to photo collages and printed lyrics, all of which begs the question: exactly how many “extras” from the proverbial vault warrant the production of a bonus DVD? Very few, apparently—but then again, this is the material world, and transcendence for the modern-day collector is often marked by needless self-indulgence.