Steve Jobs stole the label name and the visual aesthetic, Charles Manson stole “Helter Skelter,” and Sgt. Pepper’s stole the limelight, but the sloppy and overlong The Beatles (b.k.a. The White Album) is the very best assemblage of songs the foursome would ever release. The group are looser here than they are at any other point in their recorded history, more willing to play around. Free from the tyranny of progress that weighed down Sgt. Pepper’s, and with their dissolution only a blip on the horizon, the group didn’t need to make any kind of major statement–whether in the name of artistic evolution or their own legacy. That attitude is reflected not only in the songs, which range from the ska-pop of “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” to the freak-folk of “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” to the musique-concrète of “Revolution 9,” but within the songs themselves. Lennon toys around with their legacy in “Glass Onion,” name-checking a half-dozen of his own songs, then sticks a back-masked joke at the end of “I’m So Tired” just to screw with the conspiracy theorists. Kris Kristofferson would suggest a year later (via Roger Miller) that freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, but, as they did with everything else, The Beatles got there first; on The White Album, with nothing left to prove, they sound free.
Of course, the record’s eclecticism also means that The White Album is the only Beatles record that lacks any kind of narrative, whether thematic or aesthetic. If these thirty songs cohere at all (and that’s a question worth considering), then the only thing holding them together is their mutual excellence. As with any good mixtape, there are small moments of unity–the transition from “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” to the opening plucks of “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” for instance–but The White Album largely relies on the charm of the songs themselves for its propulsion.
Like Sgt. Pepper’s, The White Album’s extramusical history at times makes it difficult to hear with any clarity. Danger Mouse’s Jay-Z mashup makes it almost impossible to not expect the opening one-two of “Glass Onion” to give in to the first verse of “Encore,” and I still anticipate the gorgeous “Julia” coming out all glitched up. U2 claims to have stolen “Helter Skelter” back from Manson (when in reality Sir Paul never truly let it go), and “Blackbird” shed its would-be-prophetic connotations by virtue of its own beauty, but it’s difficult to oink and sing along with “Piggies” knowing that the song title was written in blood on the walls of a home in Los Feliz.
Which is a shame, because The White Album is often at its best when it’s at its most ridiculous. In one of the Magical Mystery Tour film’s most memorable scenes, a tuxedoed Lennon maniacally shovels spaghetti onto a large woman’s plate despite her protests. The woman’s protests give the scene its sense of surreality–she reacts in a manner consistent with the way we understand the world, creating a disconnect between her and her environment. A year later, the Beatles had learned that it’s far more entertaining to allow your audience in on the joke, too. “Piggies” and “Wild Honey Pie” are probably throwaways in the grand scheme of the group’s history, but in the context of The White Album they’re both quite charming. “Wild Honey Pie” rehashes the music-hall pretensions of “When I’m Sixty-Four,” but is aware of how ridiculous it is, and laughs openly at itself. Meanwhile, “Piggies” commits to its fundamental absurdity, its magisterial baroque accompaniment playing it straight as Lennon and McCartney oink along. If Harrison, who wrote the song, truly intended it to be a cutting attack on political greed, he should have kept his bandmates away from their mics.
The White Album’s pleasures aren’t all so perverse, though. McCartney is a second-rate cowboy, but “Rocky Raccoon” still ranks among my very favorite songs, with that little skiffle beat and barroom piano run nudging it along. “Dear Prudence,” whose Pepper’s-lite central riff had always kept me from giving it a decent listen, is buoyed by junk-store percussion and some excellent playing from Harrison, whose right-channel guitar leads neatly predicts Smashing Pumpkins’ brighter notes. Even “Don’t Pass Me By,” Ringo’s first-ever composition, kills me, with that loping rhythm and the whining country fiddle. Like the rest of the album, it’s not great for its technical accomplishment, but for the spirit that undergirds it and the confidence that it exhibits. “Don’t Pass Me By” didn’t change the world, but it didn’t have to, either.
Of course, there are major musical achievements on The Beatles–there would be no “Paranoid Android” without “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” after all. But the more I listen to this album, the more impressed I am with its supposedly minor moments, and with the solid construction of its songs. I’ve always preferred “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” to “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and I realize now that it’s because “Ob-La-Di” knows which album it’s on. There would be time for the high drama announced by “Guitar”’s opening piano lines on Abbey Road, and the instantly nostalgic chumminess of the Clapton appearance would have fit in fine with Let it Be. But on The White Album, pop wins.