The Great Albums, vol. 3: The Beatles – Rubber Soul
Folks, it just doesn’t get any better than The Beatles. They are widely acknowledged to have been not only the most popular band of the modern rock era, but also the best. Their music has proved to be timeless; nearly 40 years after their break-up, they are still essential listening and their influence can still be heard in modern music.
But picking a favorite Beatles’ album is a dicey proposition. Their albums were almost all universally strong, filled with classic songs and performances that delight people to this day. I am of the opinion that you can make a strong argument for no less than 5 albums in looking for the best one. (Note: I am referring to the original UK releases, not the American versions which often contained different tracks and track orders.) These top 5 are A Hard Day’s Night, Rubber Soul, Revolver, The Beatles (The White Album) and Abbey Road. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, probably their watershed album, falls just short for me, as do the excellent Beatles For Sale and Help! In fact, in their entire catalogue, only Yellow Submarine is not a complete success, as it is filled with a lot of instrumental music from the film.
Despite the difficulty in claiming any one Beatles album is better than the rest, it has always been my opinion (and it remains so today, if a bit more tenuously than in the past) that Rubber Soul is the best. It marked a real departure for The Beatles as their songs became more introspective and mature. Heavily influenced by The Byrds and Bob Dylan at the time, Rubber Soul has more of a folk/rock feel to it than the earlier Beatles’ albums. It definitely finds the Beatles in a more experimental mode, especially with George Harrison showing his Eastern music influence by introducing the sitar in “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown).”
For Rubber Soul, The Beatles were in the midst of their “middle period” where they really honed their songwriting skills and moved beyond the more immature (but still brilliant and ground-breaking) rock and roll of their early days. The Beatles released 3 albums in this so-called middle period: Help!, Rubber Soul and Revolver. Each is a classic in its own right and many people to this day consider Revolver to be The Beatles’ peak. I happen to disagree, even if not by much.
In the early days of the Beatles, John Lennon was unquestionably the leader. By the middle period, however, it was clear that Paul McCartney had become his equal as a songwriter, and George Harrison was rapidly developing his songwriting skills as well. Each has glorious moments on Rubber Soul. The album kicks off with “Drive My Car,” a song jointly composed by Lennon and McCartney. The jaunty, humorous bent to the song signals the Rubber Soul will be different from past Beatles’ albums. That is immediately confirmed by the next song, Lennon’s “Norwegian Wood.” Written about a tryst with a groupie, the song is considered a confessional to the then-married Lennon’s wife, Cynthia. It is also well known for the aforementioned sitar as well as it’s own humorous conclusion.
McCartney is up next with his wonderful “You Won’t See Me,” full of beautiful harmonies and a compelling lead vocal. Lennon’s “Nowhere Man” follows and it is a stunner. Picking up where “I’m A Loser” (from Beatles For Sale) left off, the song tells the story of a lost man who doesn’t realize the world is passing him by. This song is often considered to be another confession by Lennon, confronting himself on what he felt was an empty life. Harrison’s first song on the album is the fine “Think For Yourself,” which benefits greatly from McCartney’s fuzz bass guitar. Another joint Lennon/McCartney composition, “The Word,” follows. Side 1 of Rubber Soul closes with a true classic, McCartney’s beautiful, Grammy-winning “Michelle.”
Side 2 kicks off with Ringo singing lead vocals on “What Goes On” which he co-wrote with both Lennon and McCartney. If there is a weak track on the album this is it, but it does show off some fine guitar work by Harrison and as always, the harmonizing is first-rate. A minor Lennon classic, “Girl” is memorable for Lennon’s lead vocal and playfully biting lyrics. McCartney pulls no such punches with the next song, “I’m Looking Through You.” Chastising a “changed” lover, lines such as “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight” pretty much sum up the feelings of a song that many think McCartney wrote for his then girlfriend, Jane Asher.
Up next is another Lennon/McCartney collaboration and it’s one of the more timeless songs in the entire Beatles’ catalogue. Comprising mainly of Lennon’s lyrics set to McCartney’s music, “In My Life” is an absolutely lovely, introspective look at life, relationships and love and it’s message is just as powerful and meaningful today as it was back in 1966. McCartney and Lennon team up again on “Wait” and then Harrison makes a strong impression with “If I Needed Someone.” With it’s jangly guitars and brilliant harmonies, it’s the most obvious shout-out to The Byrds and their influence on the Beatles at that time. The album closes with one of Lennon’s patented jealous-guy songs, “Run For Your Life.” With it’s protagonist proclaiming, “I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man,” The Beatles are a long way from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” territory indeed.
Rubber Soul was recorded in just 4 weeks and rushed out in time for release for Christmas of 1966. Critics immediately hailed it as a masterwork and it shot to the top of the charts in Britain, where it stayed for 8 weeks. In 2003, the album was ranked #5 on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time list. In 2006, Time Magazine named it one of the 100 best albums of all time. Like nearly all of the Beatles’ music, Rubber Soul remains timeless and a testament to the incredible talent of The Beatles.