, The Beatles
' sixth album (in 3 years), is often considered one of their best, marking the point where the new songwriting maturity previously evident on Help!
first becomes truly noticeable (this is only the second Beatles album, after A Hard Day's Night
, to be made up entirely of original material).
Opener Drive My Car is an auspicious start for the album. Mainly by McCartney (who plays piano as well as bass on this track), this is an Otis Redding-esque soul stomper, showing the band's deep indebtedness to US soul music (also showed in the punning title). Originally titled Diamond Rings (some sources say Golden Rings), this was cited by McCartney in a recent interview as one of the few times when Lennon & McCartney almost failed to come up with a good song - until a last minute rewrite by the two changed the lyric to be about a wannabe star, to fit in with their then-current 'comedy song' idea.
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) is the second classic song in a row on this album. Mainly by John Lennon, this song was musically inspired by Bob Dylan (although George Harrison's sitar gives the song an added aura of exoticism it would otherwise miss - the sitar works well given the vaguely eastern flavour of Lennon's mixolydian melody) and lyrically by an extra-marital affair he had had. The song is mostly Lennon's, but McCartney probably contributed to the middle eight (where McCartney sings the melody to Lennon's high harmony) and contributed the song's ending (for those who don't realise it, the protagonist sets fire to the woman's house).
You Won't See Me is one of McCartney's songs, and one of the weaker songs on the album (though this is of course a relative term - this is the Beatles at the height of their powers we're talking about here). Lyrically inspired by McCartney's relationship with actress Jane Asher, this features McCartney on piano and Beatles roadie and general odd-job man Mal Evans on organ (one note held down through the last verse).
Nowhere Man, which follows, is back on the level of the first two songs. Although marred by rather dull 'ooh la la la' backing vocals (it doesn't help that the exact same backing vocal idea was used in the previous song), this is a minor masterpiece of Lennon's 'fat Elvis' period, where Lennon (as in the following year's I'm Only Sleeping) manages to turn his own lethargy into a remarkable song.
Think For Yourself is George Harrison's first song on the album, and is typical Harrison of this period - attacking those who looked to the Beatles for leadership rather than finding their own way. McCartney's bass part may well be the first deliberate use of fuzz bass on record (please /msg and correct me if this is wrong).
The Word is primarily Lennon's song. While this is a typical Northern Soul type stomper musically (with some great harmonies from McCartney, who adds piano, and a harmonium pad by producer George Martin), it is most interesting as the first lyrical precursor to the band's psychedelic works of a year or two later, with chorus lines like "it's so fine/it's sunshine/it's the word, love."
Michelle, the closer to side 1, is a song McCartney originally wrote as a pastiche French melody. Dusted off for the album with a new middle eight (written with Lennon), and some French lyrics provided by a teacher friend of McCartney's ('sont des mots qui vont très bien ensembles' - a literal translation of the first verse's 'these are words that go together well'), this rather surprisingly became one of the band's most popular songs. This, other than the backing vocals and possibly drums, is an entirely solo McCartney performance, the 'guitar solo' being performed on bass.
Side two starts with What Goes On, an old Lennon song dusted off with new lyrics by Ringo Starr (his first ever songwriting credit), who also takes the lead vocal. Vaguely country-flavoured, this is passable enough but the worst song on the album by a long way.
Girl on the other hand is one of the overlooked masterpieces in the Beatles' oeuvre. One of Lennon's many flirtations with the 'belle dame sans merci' archetype, this has a vaguely German cabaret feel to the music, some of the band's darkest lyrics ('Was she told when she was young that pain would lead to pleasure/Did she understand it when they said/That a man must break his back to earn his day of leisure/Will she still believe it when he's dead?') which many think are at least in part inspired by Lennon's friend Stuart Sutcliffe's German girlfriend Astrid Kirscherr. Topped off with a brilliantly tongue-in-cheek lascivious performance, this may well be the best early Beatle record.
I'm Looking Through You is, much like You Won't See Me, a rather mediocre mid-tempo soul-flavoured pop song inspired by McCartney's relationship with Asher. It's notable though for Ringo's only non-percussion instrumental role on a Beatles track (he plays Hammond organ on this track - and it sounds like him rather than John singing the harmonies too!)
In My Life is one of only two Lennon/McCartney songs to have some serious dispute over its authorship. What isn't disputed is that Lennon wrote the entire first verse lyric himself. Lennon claimed that the entire song was his, except 'the middle eight', which he credited to McCartney. (There is no middle eight in the song - he may well have been thinking of the keyboard solo recorded when Lennon wasn't present - while this sounds like McCartney's work, it was actually written and performed by George Martin). McCartney on the other hand claims to have cowritten the second verse lyric, and to have written all the music. Whoever one believes (and I tend to believe Lennon on this one - although I believe McCartney on the other disputed song, Eleanor Rigby), this is a masterpiece, one of the most beautiful songs ever written by anyone, and Lennon turns in one of his best performances.
Wait is a leftover from the sessions for Help! , and one of the last true collaborations Lennon and McCartney wrote. Lennon wrote the verse/chorus section (harmonised by the two writers) and McCartney wrote the middle eight (I feel as though/you ought to know...), for which he takes the solo vocal. Rather disjointed, this is one of the weaker tracks on the album, but still better than 97% of songs written by anyone else.
If I Needed Someone is George Harrison's first truly great song. A variation on the Byrds' arrangement of The Bells Of Rhymney, all 12-string Rickenbackers and lush harmonies (with an almost raga-like melody that anticipated Harrison's later work), this also has one of the band's most intriguing lyrical conceits - 'IF I needed someone to love, you're the one that I'd be thinking of'. This song shows Harrison blossoming into the writer who would later give us Taxman, Something and All Things Must Pass
Run For Your Life, the closing track, is in many people's eyes an anticlimax, being a fairly ragged performance, but I like it myself. Starting from a line from Baby, Let's Play House ('I'd rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man'), Lennon later regretted the seeming misogyny of this song, but in fact it's clearly a character-based song (a type of writing Lennon was also later to renounce) though with elements of Lennon's own personality coming through. A decent country-blues song that closes off a great album.
As some have mentioned above, the US version of this album replaced Nowhere Man, What Goes On and If I Needed Someone with I've Just Seen A Face and It's Only Love (both from the UK version of Help!), which changed the whole tone of the album, making it seem like a folk-rock album. The UK line-up is far superior, and holds together better as an album - this is the version currently available on CD.
The last Beatles album not to feature session musicians (other than Evans and Martin), the line-up for this album except where noted is just Harrison & Lennon on guitars, McCartney on bass and Starr on drums. Just round the corner of course was Revolver, which had a very different collection of instruments and sounds...