Nearly 50 years on the significance and the impact of this album is easily overlooked. In real time it was a leap forward in recording and was made at a time when the Beatles were becoming disillusioned with touring and thus less concerned with creating music they could recreate on stage.
We can miss all of that now, and in any case the Fab Four’s next album would cast a long shadow on nearly everything that had gone before (from the Beatles or from anybody else). But there’s still much to enjoy here and right now.
Before the Beatles were the kings pf psychedelia they were a great rock ‘n roll band, and that still shines through in guitar driven rockers like “And Your Bird Can Sing ” (which sounds strikingly current) and the album opener, George’s “Taxman”. They had great vocals too, with two great lead singers and immaculate, rich harmonies. They had a great instinct for melody. They were craftsmen and artists, with their increasingly adventurous creative urge always underpinned by solid musicianship
John’s sonic experimentation was important and impressive at the time and would culminate in the track that dominated that dominant next album (which I am studiously avoiding mentioning by name), but it’s Paul that shines here with a clutch of strong songs. ” Eleanor Rigby” eschews drums, guitars and everything else that is rock ‘n roll and brilliantly packs it’s story into three verses. “Good Day Sunshine” has a soaring chorus with those trademark harmonies and clever syncopations that create an illusion of shifting time signatures. “Got To Get You Into My Life” is alleged to be a love song to marijuana but also works just as well as a conventional love song and as Paul’s tribute to Motown. Best of all (which is considerable in this context) is “For No One” with a stripped down arrangement that allows the lyric and another great Paul melody to shine through. Oh… and one of the best George guitar solos on a Beatles record (on “Taxman”) turns out to be a Paul solo.
John’s “Tomorrow Never Knows” was a landmark in recording with it’s heavily processed vocals and looped drum track. It’s built around a drone note and features striking tape loop effects (what would be samples today, but perhaps more interesting). This track kicked down any doors that still stood beteeen popular music and the counter culture and it still impresses now.
George’s “Love You Too” was another track that had nothing to do with conventional rock instrumentation, but here we get Hindustani instrumentation rather than orchestral strings. It’s an early example of what would eventually be called World Music.
What may surprise the unsuspecting contemporary listener is the breadth of style on one record (a vinyl record, significantly shorter than the modern CD). But much of it doesn’t sound that dated now, partly due to the efforts of engineer Geoff Emerick (at the start of what would be a glittering career) and producer (and “fifth Beatle”) George Martin, but also because the material is so strong. There’s not a lot to beat a good song, and the Beatles had plenty of those.