Sunday, February 19, 2012

"All Things Must Pass," but album still strong

The greatest Beatles solo album to date?

That might be overstating it, or maybe not.

For as powerful as John Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band" surely is, or as masterful as Paul McCartney's "Band on the Run" undeniably is, or as beloved as "Imagine," "Ram," "Double Fantasy," "Tug of War," etc. all are ... "All Things Must Pass" is a masterpiece.

George Harrison, who had long chafed under the "quiet Beatle" stereotype, had been contributing to the Beatles' albums for years by this point.

And what contributions! "Something," "Here Comes the Sun," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "The Inner light," "I Want to Tell You," "Love You To," "Taxman," "If I Needed Someone," "Think For Yourself," etc. (just to name a handful).

Having only been allotted a couple tracks here and there throughout the Beatles' career, Harrison had compiled quite a collection of songs by the time the Fab Four split. Teaming up with Phil Spector as producer, and gathering together friends and artists he admired, Harrison put together this splendid album.

And what an immediate statement it was.

First off, it was the first triple album of new material released by a solo artist. Right off the bat, history is made.

And the material on those three LPs of music ranged from the sublime ("My Sweet Lord") to the soulful ("Isn't It a Pity") to the fantastic ("What Is Life") to the majestic ("All Things Must Pass") to the pastoral ("I'd Have You Anytime") to the groovy ("Wah Wah") to the rocking ("Let It Down") to the enchanting ("Beware of Darkness"), and all steps in-between ...

Harrison had learned from the labor of Lennon and McCartney, and had combined his own sensibilities and talents as a songwriter to form one of the great albums of the early 1970s. Even the weakest tracks (like "Apple Scruffs" and "I Dig Love") show off a versatility that takes many artists decades to master (indeed, if they ever do manage to master it).

In fact, that the "weak tracks" on the album are so strong speaks to Harrison's budding strengths as both a songwriter and a performer. He may not have had Lennon's venom or McCartney's charm, but his conviction and outlook ring pretty loudly throughout the material.

How did people react to this huge collection of songs? Well, pretty ecstatically. The album rose to No. 1 (beating both Lennon and McCartney to that spot as solo artists in both the UK and U.S.). The songs "My Sweet Lord" and "What Is Life" were massive hits and radio mainstays. And the variety of the material, from pop to soul to folk, spoke to different communities and involved artists from many genres. Eric Clapton. Bob Dylan. Billy Preston. Badfinger. And many, many more. All of these people either co-wrote material or played on the album (or both, in the case of the "Apple Jam" on the third disc).

"All Things Must Pass" is a striking listen. Following the disillusion of "The Beatles" (AKA The White Album), the open dejection of "Let It Be" and the overwhelming power of farewell album "Abbey Road," the Beatles had all grown up, grown away from each other and had interests (musical and otherwise) that necessitated solo careers. They were all accomplished singers, songwriters and instrumentalists, they'd all experimented with sounds and styles, and they didn't need or want the OK of their bandmates to pursue their chosen material.

Of course, breaking out of an institution as powerful and far-reaching as THE BEATLES was going to be a herculean effort for all involved. All the Beatles had a challenge in blazing their own paths. It's a lot to live up to, being a Beatle. Especially when we're talking about the material that follows a very public band divorce.

So those first albums, and their first tracks, had a lot of attention on them. The tolling of a church bell opens Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band." A cheerful McCartney opens "McCartney" with some strumming and carefree singing. Ringo was, well, Ringo.

George didn't provide another "Something" or "Here Comes the Sun" to open his first proper solo album. Instead, the album is sequenced to begin with the laidback Dylan co-write "I'd Have You Anytime." The song starts fairly quiet and restrained (though with some lovely slide guitar that was a hint at what George would favor on his solo works from now on), but the power builds as the track progresses. "All I have is yours / all you see is mine / and I'm glad to have you in my arms / I'd have you anytime" is pleasant, and seems a sly comment on the album itself.

The third disc, the "Apple Jam" disc, is the most disposable of the 3 LPs. But it's not awful, nor is it boring. Some of the tracks are even kind of fun. But it sounds like the product it is: a bunch of talented artists just noodling around, having fun and jamming along together.

Harrison would go on to produce more great work as a solo artist, and his commercial ventures would see some ups and downs. But his landmark "All Things Must Pass" carves a niche atop the Beatles' solo recordings. For any mood, and in any occasion, there's a song on this album that will perfectly accompany it.

I own all of Lennon's stuff. And I own almost all of McCartney's stuff. I own all of Harrison's stuff. I would consider myself a pretty big fan of the Beatles and their solo materials (I even own a decent share of Ringo's solo releases). So I feel somewhat qualified to say that "All Thing Must Pass" is one of the best, if not THE best, of their releases after the split. I hold it, Lennon's "Plastic Ono Band" (my personal favorite of all the solo Beatles albums) and McCartney's "Flaming Pie" as my top three of post-Beatles solo releases (though my picks could easily favor Harrison's "Brainwashed," Lennon's "Walls and Bridges" and McCartney's "Chaos and Creation in the Backyard" on any given day).

"All Things Must Pass" is a must-have for all real music lovers, and should be among the first Harrison albums that listeners allow themselves to discover. Throw on some headphones, stretch out on your back and let the music carry you away.

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