Dusting 'Em Off
Revisiting an album, a film, or an event on its anniversary

Dusting ‘Em Off: The Beatles – Rubber Soul

on April 24, 2010, 8:00am

Claiming to be a Beatles fan is an act of courage in this world, as Beatle fandom doesn’t seem to allow for middle-of-the-spectrum devotion: Either you’re trekking to Abbey Road on the River-type festivals each summer and can recite track lists and release dates for both the U.K. and U.S. albums, or you like “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” just as much as the next guy. There is no in-between.

Well, maybe there is … I’d rate myself a low B/high C in terms of my Beatles knowledge, especially in comparison to some of the fans I’ve encountered (whose ranks include not one but two long-term ex-boyfriends, as well as classmates from a Beatles Ensemble guitar class at Chicago’s own Old Town School of Folk Music). Sure, I may know the story behind “I Am the Walrus” (in that there really is no story), and I’ve even been to two Abbey Road festivals (with members of the aforementioned class, naturally), but if you start talking to me about B-sides and unreleased tracks and demos and, hell, Pete Best, you probably will know just as much as, if not more than, I do.

So it’s been said: C+ general-knowledge base, folks. And let us proceed.

Rubber Soul is my favorite Beatles album, although, admittedly, it’s by default. More on that in a minute. When it comes to the great debate of just when and where the Beatles transitioned from putting out boy-band-worthy cheery pop songs into being true artists, most people seem pretty divided between Soul and its immediate successor, Revolver. Really, it depends on what appeals to your personal rock aesthetic – folksy or psychedelic. That, and if you can get behind the song “Michelle”. In any event, I was introduced to Rubber Soul in fall 2001, when I was studying in Rome and first met one of the aforementioned ex-boyfriends. This era largely predated iPods, iTunes, MP3 players, and even YouTube, so all of us had to make do with the few CDs we had crammed into our suitcases for the year. For the boy, Rubber Soul was one such album. It just grew on me after a while.

However, I don’t think this takes away from the fact that it’s a highly listenable album. I would argue that there isn’t a bad song in the mix, and yes, that even includes “Michelle”. Let’s take a close, close look:

“Drive My Car” is just groovy. The bass line sort of hooks you right away, and the song is even more fun once you realize how naughty its lyrics are. Then there’s the flavors in “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, the first example of a mainstream pop-rock song to incorporate the sitar (thanks to George Harrison’s burgeoning interest in all things India). This, too, represents a step away from the cheery subject matter of album predecessors and reflects some of the band members’ growing disillusionment with romantic relationships – in this case, through an allusion to one of John Lennon’s many affairs, though perhaps not the affair. I’m still not sure whether or not the legend is true that Lennon didn’t know how to end the song, and Paul McCartney told him to simply burn the house down. Either way, the classic riff built around the “D” chord is just gorgeous.

Don’t get me started on “You Won’t See Me”. How could anyone not like a song that contains a backing chorus of “Ooh, la lala?” Or even the open door ruthlessness of “Nowhere Man”, Lennon’s moment of raw honesty born out of an afternoon of writer’s block?

“Think for Yourself” is vital for a reason. The verses contain a somewhat imploring tone, which heightens their contrast to the peppy chorus: “Do what you want to do – and go where you’re going to/ think for yourself ‘cause I won’t be there with you.” As this and other tracks will demonstrate, this album is truly the champion of making bitterness sound cheerful.

Then there’s…  “Michelle”. Maybe I appreciate this song only because it includes some of the most complicated walk-downs I ever attempted on the guitar, but you have to admit that this tune hooks you. Unless, that is, you can’t stand it. There’s probably no in-between. For me, it’s a worthy addition to the Beatles’ extensive library of female-name song titles. These are words that go together well.

Moving along, we’ll have to recognize “What Goes On”, as it’s the only Ringo Starr-penned tune of the mix, which surprisingly sounds just a little bit country. “Girl” is one long sigh, starting with the opening lines, “Is there anybody going to listen to my story all about a girl who came to stay?” to the brilliant and bitter bridge, “She’s the kind of girl who puts you down when friends are there, you feel a fool/when you say she’s looking good she acts as if it’s understood.” (Wikipedia is claiming that the song’s deep inhalations were meant to resemble the sounds of toking, which doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch.)

Towards the bottom of the album, we arrive at “I’m Looking Through You”. Yet another entry within the line-up of oddly cheerful-sounding songs barely masking relationship disillusionment. The lyric “I’m looking through you” could be interpreted a couple different ways: The narrator is evaluating the other person, or simply looking beyond the other person already. “In My Life” sticks to similar themes, though feels sweetly wistful (“There are places I’ll remember all my life though some have changed/ … some are dead and some are living/ in my life I’ve loved them all”).

“Wait” is the 1960s’ equivalent of 21st-century relationship ambivalence, one too often manifested in cross-purposes rounds of text messaging. (I’m not currently bitter or anything.) But really, what the hell do these lyrics even mean? “It’s been a long time, now I’m coming back home … but if your heart breaks, don’t wait, turn me away.” Why didn’t they just sing “Meh” and be done with it?

But let us not forget “Run for Your Life”. I feel bad for admitting this, but never before has an utterly misogynistic song sounded so fun. I guess an abundance of the “D” chord makes everything better. Still, once you get past the upbeat musicality and actually listen to the lyrics, you’ll be a little disturbed: “You better run for your life if you can little girl/ hide your head in the sand little girl/ catch you with another man, that’s the end, little girl.” And better: “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man.” At least Lennon acknowledges the fact that he’s a “wicked guy” who “was born with a jealous mind.”

You can see why this one sticks, huh?

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