George Harrison: Brainwashed

George Harrison

The quiet Beatle sings out one last time and the result is a phenomenal solo album, spiritual and uplifting in a way that serves to remind how much this undervalued Beatle will be missed. Like George himself, this album is in turns funny, serious, philosophical, precious and ultimately enjoyable, a worthy posthumous testament to the rich Harrison musical legacy.

Harrison had said goodbye to the showbiz life long before, and had given up the music and film businesses for the simple life where gardening was his most pleasurable hobby. Yet the music always was with him: writing songs, playing.

The idea for a new album came about when George was re-mastering tracks for the re-release of All Things Must Pass in 2000. He and son Dhani discussed the songs, played them together and even had a track listing and recording schedule with November 2002 as a release date. George kept recording up until two months prior to his death. After his death (lost to cancer at age 58 a year ago November), Dhani decided to stick to the original plan. He enlisted the help of friend/producer/fellow Traveling Wilbury Jeff Lynne in finishing what is now Brainwashed.

A cursory listen to these songs provides relief on many fronts. Jeff Lynne does not apply too heavy-handed a touch while sweetening the production demos (yet it’s unmistakably Lynne throughout — but no more so then on any of the Wilburys CDs — consider it more of a musical sequel to 1987’s Cloud Nine). While the song lyrics deal with any number of “heavy” topic matters in a spiritual/philosophical bent (including some of how illness confounded George at times), the ambience remains light and upbeat. Despite the fact that these songs were recorded at different times, George’s voice remains strong throughout. Best of all, the signature slide guitar is back in a big way, along with plenty of other great George guitar and ukelele sounds.

Repeated listens only enhance the pleasure. Brainwashed is a rich musical treasure trove well mined in execution and production. With intentions respected and preserved, George would be pleased. We are left with sounds to soothe us, words to move us to deeper thought, and one final reminder of how much George and his talent and charm will be missed.

The proceedings start with George saying, “Give me plenty of that guitar” and sure enough, the music delivers. “Any Road” (first recorded in 1997 for a VH1 special) is a celebration, a happy-sounding shuffle accompanied by plenty of that guitar indeed, along with an instrument called banjulele (and that terrific slide). This could fit well into the Wilburys canon, with words that discuss the whims of fate and destiny, the seriousness and levity of this journey we call life: “Oh Lord we pay the price / with a spin of a wheel, with a roll of the dice / Ah yeah you pay your fare / And if you don’t know where you’re going / any road will take you there.”

No topic is off-limits for George here. “P.2. Vatican Blues” is standard 12-bar blues (second nature to George after all these years) whose target is the Catholic Church, where money expiates sin, exposing organized religion as show. Harrison’s confidence and guitar expertise is on display; Jeff Lynne again adds signature touches with backing vocals, bass and guitars, while Jim Keltner covers drums (as he does on most tracks).

Perhaps one of the most personal (and therefore touching) songs here is “Pisces Fish”. Here the vocals are a little more gristle-throated, but it works, conveying deep emotions well, defying the listener to be unmoved. George also does the falsetto backing-vocals (along with bass, and ubiquitous ukelele and guitars). This is another contemplative song about life, wherein George focuses on the small day-to-day aspects, rowers on the river, his bicycle chain, this journey of seeking an ocean of bliss, the continual flowing river of life from generation to generation, and how easily we miss it: “Some times my life it seems like fiction / some of the days it’s really quite serene / I’m a living proof of all of life’s contradictions / One half’s going where the other half’s just been / And I’m a Pisces fish and the river runs through my soul.”

“Looking for My Life” is a distant cousin of “My Sweet Lord”, another conversation with the higher power relating to the search and the struggle that is life: “Had no idea that I was heading / toward a state of emergency / I had no fear where I was treading / I only found it out when I was down upon my knees / Looking for my life.”

“Rising Sun” enforces the concept that we are eternal souls, more than that we see as trapped in our body minds. Dhani saw his father’s faith first-hand in the way he handled the cancer diagnosis in 1998 right until his end: “He never flinched. He never felt sorry for himself. He never lost his sense of humor. He wasn’t afraid of death, his own mortality, although he was very aware of it. He wasn’t even attached to his body, if you know what I mean. We’d be in the kitchen and he’d say, ‘Dhan, you know we are not these bodies, don’t you?” “Rising Sun” gets this concept across with sweet slide guitar.

There is no shortage of masterful slide guitar here. It is front and center in the lush dreamy “Marwa Blues”, hypnotically leading the way in this instrumental meditation of a song.

The first single from the CD is “Stuck Inside a Cloud”, another intensely personal confession as song, relating how tough it is to part from things, alluding to battles with cancer and mortality (yet written years before he ever learned he was ill) and done in a direct non-maudlin manner: “Talking to myself / crying out loud / Only I can hear me / I’m stuck inside a cloud / Never been so crazy / But I’ve never felt so sure / I wish I had the answer to give / Don’t even have the cure / Just talking to myself / crying as we part / Knowing as you leave me / I also lose my heart.” This song would not be out of place on All Things Must Pass.

If “(Can Only) Run So Far” sounds familiar to some listeners, there’s a reason: Eric Clapton recorded the song on 1989’s Journeyman. With Harrison’s version, there’s a distinct influence of Hawaiian slack-key guitar music (not surprising since George lived in seclusion on Maui for a large part of his later years). “Never Get Over You” is another mellow love song enhanced by distinctive Harrison guitar sounds and sweet Beatle-esque harmonies.

“Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” was recorded in 1991 for British televison, during sessions with Jools Holland and band. It allows the ever-playful George to play uke and sing and just have fun with the great Harold Arlen/Ted Koehler standard. This was the kind of music George would often listen to for his own pleasure, according to Dhani, who recalls that learning guitar from his dad wasn’t a high pressure situation: “He never pushed me, just left me to learn or not. The main thing was he was always around the house, playing his ukulele and smiling. I’d come home from school and he’d be standing in the doorway playing his uke. We’d play together all the time. And listen to records: Hoagy Carmichael, Cab Calloway, Nina Simone, Big Bill Broonzy, Bix and Bing. Stuff you wouldn’t ordinarily play to kids. I loved it.”

The CD ends in grand fashion with the title track. “Brainwashed” is a major attack on the false gods of our cynical society: stock markets, politicians, computers, mobile phones, etc. It’s also a call to God and spiritual awakening, an appeal to the true higher force, and includes wonderful tabla rhythms (courtesy of Bikram Ghosh) and a reading from a text called How to Know God that proclaims: “The soul does not love, it is love itself; it does not exist, it is existence itself; it does not know, it is knowledge itself.” Touchingly, the song ends with a shared chant between George and Dhani, a private moment made public and one fittingly apt.

All told, this easily is Harrison’s best solo effort since All Things Must Pass, a beautiful CD of very personal songs that will charm you the way the quiet Beatle did. This is a labor of love from Dhani Harrison and Jeff Lynne to George, and it shows. They wanted to get it right — and I’m happy to report that they have. This collection of melodic upbeat songs is a celebration chock full of sincerity and warmth from a man who never let his stardom (nor his illness) get in the way of the simple things most important to him. The quiet shy Beatle may never get the accolades he deserves — but Brainwashed is further proof his tremendous talent lives on.