Revolver is a pretty appropriate title for the Beatles seventh album. For all intents and purposes, it’s a shot in the dark from the world’s greatest pop band. Chronologically, it’s the next album after Rubber Soul and the one just before Sgt. Pepper’s, arguably representing the band at its most experimental and psychedelic. But contextually, this album offers the band new opportunities. It also is a move from the American-inspired soul, rock, and R&B pop bonanzas that dominated much of the band’s sound until this point in 1966. This is a band at a crossroads and on a journey that unfolds to reveal daring leaps to the future, along with its share of missteps.
While this isn’t the band’s first clear phase of experimentation (see the rest of their career), this is one of the best examples of the band clearly striving for something new and previously unheard. Rubber Soul was the band’s folk rock masterpiece and often cited as one of their best albums. Sgt. Pepper’s is Sgt. Pepper’s, and its massive orchestral sound kicked off a whole youth sub-movement in psychedelia. But Revolver deserves more attention as an innovative project and not just a stepping stone between moments of greatness.
Primarily, this album is a new technology fiend’s dream. The first instance is the posthumous changes when the album was remastered and released on 09/09/09. What the years of delicate technical enhancements left us with is a sweet stereo album that sounds lusher, with its authenticity and minor musical nuances and production magic restored to their fullest. In other words, expect the same realness and pure, Beatles-as-they-were-meant-to-be-heard fullness as on the other albums released. That’s not to minimize this album; even on its own, Revolver is a wonder at pushing the envelope with the latest effects possible. And for the most part, non-audiophiles (99.99% of fans) will hardly notice the difference between the remastered and other versions: They both will blow your mind. Among the extras used to create that effect are doubled vocal track technology, reverse guitars, processed vocals, and looped tape effects. These effects are crucial in giving the band a new sound on the record and demonstrating their commitment to being pioneers.
Revolver is a controlled burn of sorts. Its aim is to maintain some rock sensibility while moving toward the psychedelic trademarks of effects, vocals that trail off into a multi-colored eternity, and guitar work that is both bluesy and almost non-existent at the same time. But since this is their first real crack at the genre, the band sees minimal experimentation with the lyrical content and themes. What would shift to more absurdest content on later albums (like Magical Mystery Tour) was still standard songs of love and social critique on Revolver. One of the most powerful examples of song magic on the album is the closer track “Tomorrow Never Knows”. What begins with a lonely sitar explodes into a cacophony of dominant drums and a guitar transformed by technology into the calls of some majestic and snarling bird of prey. Lennon’s voice is less emotional and broken in some of the other hit songs, and it is turned into a voice of consistency in the maze of musical chaos, something the ear seeks out as refuge. The trademark of many a psychedelic songs is ambiance, a feeling that the music bounces off unseen walls and creates a chamber of sound. But the Beatles’ version is more about sending out sounds that slowly pop through the air and fade off into the ether. This is a richer experience as the sound is almost alive and behaves accordingly.
Another strong piece is “I’m Only Sleeping,” which actually runs converse to “Tomorrow Never Knows”. In “I’m Only Sleeping”, Lennon’s voice is too small and weak, especially compared to his vocal battles from the band’s bigger hits. The star of the song is the jingly, crunchy guitars that both float along and chug; that kind of duality is a trademark of the album, as it draws attention and is an interesting change in song dynamics. What makes this truly trippy, however, is the backward guitar, which once again emerges from nothing and flies along like a bee or wasp. Again, this is another example of technology creating a natural, living sound.
“Doctor Robert” is also an interesting creation. While it sounds like some of the older, rock-heavy work of Rubber Soul and beyond, lyrically it is the genesis of some of the drug culture references to come in later albums. Despite that very distinction, the song is rather catchy and is an example of the group playing with the sonics of psychedelic music, especially in the moments where the guitars dance outward in slow motion.
Despite the wonderfully trippy vibe of the album, it’s not a Beatles album without some of the their mainstream pop efforts. Argue as much as you may, but “Help!” and “Twist and Shout” and other derivatives of American bands and artists from Chubby Checker to the Beach Boys drew listeners in to the band; it’s the experimentation and fresh spin on things that keeps those fans. Since Revolver is the bridge between the traditional rock sounds and the innovations of a sound that would transform much of pop music, it should deliver some pop music. And I mean the “sunshine, love and joy that’s so bright and happy it should burn your retinas” kind of pop music. However, that initial desire for the days of old quickly dies away when you listen to the album and the aforementioned psychedelic gems. Instead, many of the poppier songs take away somewhat from the overall mission statement of the band. It’s an odd and almost unachievable demand: Change your sound and still stay pop, but make that pop to reflect something you’ve only just created. But what we get for many of the album’s fillers doesn’t quite achieve the renovation that is necessary. Perhaps on other albums this would fly, but on Revolver, tracks like “Got To Get You Into My Life” and “Here, There and Everywhere” are seemingly out of place.
When a song like “And Your Bird Can Sing”, a simple, catchy pop song that would shame the work of a Yardbirds-esque group, seems like a problem, then maybe it’s the reviewer that has a problem. I understand the band can’t abandon their roots, but there is a way of honoring one’s origins without necessarily stepping backward, instead playing to an audience who is already hooked for life and then intersecting the pop flow with fresh concepts. Thankfully, songs like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine” show a small window into the true power of the Beatles. Even though these mega-hits are rather sudden and less shiny and existential than other tracks, they are amalgams of the Beatles’ strength. For example, “Eleanor Rigby” is lyrically dark and depressing, but the profound and gorgeous string work is powerful enough to draw people in. On the other hand is “Yellow Submarine”, which not only lends a new voice to the band in Ringo Starr, but also is a work that is still singable by common folk (not to mention its abstract tale of undersea life and its hippie jam band sound).
With Revolver, George Harrison took a few steps closer to the mic and collected himself three writing credits. The first remarkable thing about Harrison is his voice. While McCartney is sweet and has the perfect voice for love songs and Lennon has the visceral, tear-at-your-heart-strings range, Harrison is rather monotone. His voice fits perfectly in contrast with some of the bigger aspects of the psychedelic sounds. In a song like “I Want To Tell You”, the sinister piano and the steady, near-tribal drum line combine effortlessly with his voice to make for a song that is as beautiful as it is emotionally impacting and disturbing. “Taxman” is a work that is mature and insightful. It’s tinged with satire and social commentary (specifically the band getting hosed on paying taxes) that still buzzes with an electricity and energy that was crucial in the beginning of the psychedelic movement. “Love You To” has a near-similar build to “Tomorrow Never Knows”, but the song is less crazed and maniac with its explosions, instead slowly builds to a sitar-led track that builds a focus around Harrison’s voice and the Beatles’ style of open spaces. And it achieves all of this while working toward a high-energy ending and maintaining a theme of boy-meets-girl that is somewhat more diabolical.
In the grand scheme of the Beatles’ work and musical contributions, Revolver will never have the same fan devotion and sheer hype that other albums had. Enthusiasts will find a boatload of issues with it, including its lack of real chart toppers, its shift away from folk, its shift toward psychedelic music, the presence of Harrison, less space for Lennon/McCartney, etc. Though there are some loving fans, I have the feeling this will always be the black sheep of the Beatles’ catalog. While its heart and energy are in the right place, its theme was damaged by some of the tried and true Beatles songwriting. But in the same vein, Revolver was a decision to move toward something new, a necessary step toward pop Valhalla and away from squeaky-clean purgatory. For me, this album will forever be a paradox, as I dissect at “what could’ve been” and marvel at “what was.”