A YEAR IN MUSIC: 1968
Review by: Graham Warnken
The old chestnut that this is four separate solo albums smashed into one is a drastic oversimplification. At most, it’s two solo albums, a solo EP, and a solo single—John and Paul are running the show here, while George gets four compositions and Ringo gets two, one of which he didn’t even write. But the hyperbole of that cliche is driving at the truth—this album is at times almost unbearable to listen to because of how isolated its performers are.
The White Album has always felt like an endurance run to me. It’s not that I have to suffer the material reluctantly—it’s the feckin’ Beatles, after all, and of their LPs this is my #2 on a good day. It’s not the longest album I own by a long stretch—The Clash’s Sandinista and Joanna Newsom’s Have One on Me immediately spring to mind as two longer ones. But I have to work myself up to listening to it. I always feel hollow when I’ve finished it, exhausted, and I can’t do it with headphones—I have to do it on vinyl, the music at a safe remove from my head as I listen. I love it, it’s one of the best records ever made, but I’m always left feeling unsettled and empty once the needle lifts for the final time.
For a long time, I thought this was due to the combination of its length and the diversity of its material—after all, it’s jarring to be hurled from gentle acoustic numbers to proto-metal to music hall to noise collage all on the same record. But the juxtaposition of genres and styles is no longer enough to startle me—I’ve been listening to this album since I was fifteen, and I’m intimately familiar with the track listing. Eventually, we grow accustomed to everything as long as we’ve heard it often enough.
No, the answer is less obvious, and it’s buried in that hyperbolic four-solo-albums chestnut. I realized this when I was listening to Rubber Soul the other day, closing my eyes and enjoying the blending of John and Paul’s voices into a seemingly single entity.
There are no harmonies on The White Album.
Now, that in and of itself is hyperbolic—of course there have to be some. But almost none of them spring instantly to your mind when you try to conjure them up. I can instantly summon the sound of Paul’s voice piping up in the verses to “Ticket to Ride,” the four-part unison of the boys on “Carry That Weight,” John and his co-lead barking the “Sgt. Pepper” reprise in tandem. When I try to think of similar moments on The White Album, I’m left with a blank.
It’s not just harmonies, of course. A huge percentage of the album’s tracks don’t even have the whole band playing. Ringo had quit the band for “Back in the U.S.S.R./Dear Prudence”; John and George were elsewhere when Paul and Mr. Starr decided to lay down “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?”; Paul and John took “Blackbird,” “Rocky Raccoon,” “I Will,” “Julia,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” and others themselves; John and Yoko holed up with a tape deck and pieced together “Revolution 9”. But it’s not as if this hasn’t been the case before. Ringo is entirely absent from “I’m Looking Through You” besides the occasional Hammond organ blast. “Yesterday” is all Paul. George is isolated from his bandmates behind waves of sitar on “Within You Without You.” Sure, there were never so many pared-down tracks at once before, but with this expansive tracklist it was bound to happen more often. The abundance of absences from song to song is unusual, but not enough to induce the disquiet that lingers on the album.
No, what does it for me is how even on tracks that feature the whole band, the lead singer still might as well be by himself. Vocals stand out alone amid the instruments; they’re not bolstered by anything, they hang entirely on their own. The rich, full melding of John’s abrasive, nasal tone and Paul’s velvety one is absent, and it leaves a vacuum. The singers sound thin, weak, left to fend for themselves in the midst of their own tracks and not quite up to the challenge. Yoko’s sometime vocal intrusions make it worse—now there’s more than once voice on the track, but no, that’s not right, that’s not a Beatle there. The Beatles have always been and will always be a source of comfort and friendliness, and Paul’s inherent goodheartedness, Ringo’s lovable dopiness, John’s infectious cheekiness, George’s… whatever it is, can’t be taken away from them regardless of how they sing their songs. But where elsewhere you feel, listening to the group, that you have a whole pack of friends encased within the LP, here you only have one at a time. You’re alone with John as he uses you for a therapist, with Paul as he hams it up to make you laugh, with George as he strives to elevate your consciousness, with Ringo as he lulls you to sleep, and while it’s still a nice sensation, it’s an unavoidably different one.
I haven’t listened to Let It Be often enough to completely determine if it shares this album’s unsettling feeling of isolation, but I don’t think it can. It’s still a portrait of a band coming to terms with its own demise, but you have John and Paul trading off sections of “I’ve Got a Feeling,” backing each other up on “Get Back,” paying tribute to one another on “Two of Us.” On both that album and Abbey Road, you feel intuitively that things are not and cannot be the same as they once were, but the boys are trying, doing their best to produce, if not a return to the old days, the best facsimile of one they can. The White Album is frightening, disheartening, and draining because none of that’s there. The group is in tatters, and they don’t care who knows it.
All this talk of fear and emptiness is pompous and overblown, of course, because it completely ignores the fact that there’s just beautiful music on here, easily among each songwriter’s best. Were the album truly nothing but discomforting to listen to, something would be very wrong indeed; even at their most cynical, fed up, or workmanlike, the guys are incapable of entirely alienating their audience. But I have to take the beauty in drips and drabs to feel good about it; listen to a track here, a track there, scattered amongst my driving playlist.
When I listen to the record all at once, a vague sinking feeling takes hold; and though I turn the volume up for my favorite songs, and sing along at times, and enthuse over individual moments, every time Ringo’s final whispered message fades out I breathe a faint sigh of relief. Good night, he says, voice so close to the microphone that it tickles your ear. On any other Beatles album it would be a soothing sensation. On The White Album, I feel his breath against my face, imagine him all alone in the studio hoping that eventually George Martin will come along and lend him some instrumental company, and shiver.