Je n'aime pas dans les vieux films américains quand les conducteurs ne regardent pas la route. Et de ratage en ratage, on s'habitue à ne jamais dépasser le stade du brouillon. La vie n'est que l'interminable répétition d'une représentation qui n'aura jamais lieu.

Abbey Road (1969) - The Beatles


He roller coaster, he got early warning

He got muddy water, he one mojo filter

He say, “One and one and one is three.”

Got to be good lookin’ cause he’s so hard to see

Abbey Road, and really the entire Beatles catalogue, has achieved such mythic levels of cultural saturation that there’s really no use whatsoever for anyone to try to actually talk about it anymore.  Thus, the article concludes.

Ha ha, no, not really!  That would require some sort of artistic and ethical consistency on my part!  So, no, let me talk about it.  But surely at this point nothing is required but a straight up reaction shot, a personal anecdote rather than a scholarly treatise.  Probably few albums have been dissected in such detail.  At this late date, I’m not going to shock anyone by ‘revealing’ that, while Let It Be was the last Beatles album released, this one was actually the last recorded.  I could tell the anecdote about Lennon’s “Cut it” while listening to the take of I Want You (She’s So Heavy) or about how Harrison wrote Here Comes the Sun in Clapton’s garden or about how Her Majesty ended up being the first hidden track.  But why?  I mean, this has all been said and said about a million times. 

The lyrics have been subjected to as much textual criticism as if they were an ancient religious text, the musical decisions have been scrutinized, the personal dynamics of the band members have been plumbed, the historical and artistic import of the album has been canonized.  All that remains now, not much over forty years later, is to simply say again that the music on this album is brilliant and that it still sounds fresh and that the energy level is high and that this is easily the best of the late Beatles albums.

I date late Beatles from Sgt. Pepper on and while it is Sgt. Pepper that is often called the best of this late period, I maintain that Sgt. Pepper is massively overrated, really only interesting in its failures, in the degree to which the experimentation in the studio pushes everything else to the margins.  Abbey Road is a far more consistent album than Sgt. Pepper in every important way.  It’s also, in its own way, a far more experimental one.  But mixed in with the experimentation this time is something approximating real songwriting.  But this is an understatement; this is the best songwriting the Beatles have done since Revolver.  Come Together is an odd moment when Lennon’s word salad surrealism actually works; Here Comes the Sun remains the finest song Harrison ever wrote, an absolute suffusion of warmth and comfort like no other; You Never Give Me Your Money is, for the first minute at least, as lovely and aching a song as McCartney had written since Yesterday; Octopus’s Garden is, let’s say it, a great song from Ringo and, for my money, yes, it is better than I Am the Walrus and I’m not just saying that to make you mad, though I know it does.  This doesn’t even touch on Something, Because, I Want You, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, etc., all of which are brilliant and, on any other album, would be standouts.  Here, they’re relegated to the second tier, so packed with genius is that first tier.  Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, particularly, deserves a revisitation; Lennon might have called it granny music, but for once Lennon was being slow on the uptake as it’s actually the most perverse song McCartney ever wrote, Eleanor Rigby being too compassionate to classify as perverse. 

But the experimentation is stunning and remains so.  I defend The White Album to the death, but Abbey Road is more consistent that that one too.  On an initial listen, it does not instantly leap to mind that at least four or five of the songs need to go to the dustbin.  There’s nothing like Revolution No. 9 here, though this album too pushes the boundaries of form and structure with its side two medley, which is really two medleys next to each other as near as I could tell.  Her Majesty is a nice way into the White Album vs. Abbey Road debate, since the White Album also features some brief snippets of foolishness, like, for instance, Wild Honey Pie and the Stones pastiche Why Don’t We Do It In the Road (another nice perversity from McCartney for the *ahem* road).  But Her Majesty is light years ahead of Wild Honey Pie, which is actually the first track I’d take off the White Album, even ahead of Revolution No. 9, which at least has its sheer shit-faced idiocy going for it.  Wild Honey Pie has nothing going for it; Her Majesty, despite being under thirty seconds long, is a real song – with no less than two verses and a great hummable medley.  It is what most of the songs in the medley are, which is less sketches for songs, which some critics say, and more just songs in miniature.  Golden Slumbers, for instance, isn’t a sketch; I don’t think one could perfect it.  Carry That Weight has only a sing-shouty chorus to recommend it, but then what else does it need?  She Came In Through the Bathroom Window is no sketch; it’s a full song and if the version here doesn’t convince you of that, then Joe Cocker’s version will.  Sun King is admittedly not a song, but they harmonize like it is and even after Because, we’re still in the mood for a little of that harmony.  Mean Mr. Mustard and Polythene Pam are less interesting, but no one can do everything to absolute perfection, not even miniature.

Of course every Beatles album is an essential listen.  This is, first of all, simply because each album is attempting to do something so radically different from all the others.  Second of all, even amidst the flaws and problems of some of them, there are buried some of the greatest songs you’ll ever hear.  Even Sgt. Pepper has A Day In the Life, something like the ne plus ultra of Lennon/McCartney as a real unit, and . . . well, Lovely Rita?  I dunno, maybe just A Day In the Life . . . I’m not sure, really.  Never mind, we’ll talk about Sgt. Pepper later.  Well, there’s the Sgt. Pepper reprise, which is totally awesome.  Later!  Later!

Abbey Road though is certainly one of their best.  It stacks up against their very best early albums, like Hard Day’s Night, Help and Revolver.  All the experimentation seems to have a point this time.  This is not to say the album itself has a point, which is probably a good thing since that’s one thing Sgt. Pepper did have, not that I care.  But Abbey Road is a masterpiece, certainly one of the most perfect pop-rock albums ever crafted as well as one of the most important.  One wishes for vibrancy like this today, but one seldom gets it.  Still, I’ve done what I came to do, which was write a rambling tribute to the Beatles’ best late album without talking about all the stuff everyone always talks about.  Like the cover.  Did you notice I didn’t mention the cover?  Oh.  Damn.

5 out of 5 stars.

More Music Reviews!