When I awoke
I was alone
This bird had flown
I lit a fire,
Isn’t it good
-Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flow)
This album is abnormally comfortable. For reasons that elude me, Rubber Soul is the Beatles album I default to for a casual, relaxed listen. Revolver is close contender, but it’s a bit too experimental and masterpiece-ish to fill the same effortless void. Even my favorite Beatles album (Abbey Road) is too intricate and emotional for me to want to pop in more often than this humble LP. I know that makes zero sense, but whenever I listen to the organic instruments, commonplace themes, genre-mashing, and simple-but-sharp lyrics of Rubber Soul, I go into a different state of mind. That’s not to say Rubber Soul is unremarkable or a guilty pleasure; neither could be farther from the truth. Help! was a prototype, this is the finished product.
The fact that this album has less artsy flourishes then most “classic” Beatles albums calls attention to its greatest, most underappreciated attribute: Rubber Soul (in this geek’s opinion) is the greatest Beatles album PURELY in terms of composition. There have been Beatles albums with better playing, better production, better singing, better lyrics, better ideas, and better overall music…but NEVER better melodies. I believe the melody to be the single most important part of a song, making the skeleton of Rubber Soul one of my favorites before we even get to the meat. The meat makes it even better. Yum.
So let’s get simultaneously rubbery and soulful! The opener is one of Paul’s all-time classics: “Drive My Car.” Everything to like about Rubber Soul is here: fun instrumental textures (feel that revving guitar and that cruising piano!), interesting musical flourishes (is that a cowbell?), lyrics that are as clever as they are chuckle-worthy (Paul eventually confirmed that they were about sex, which everyone already guessed anyway, but it’s way more amusing to take them literally), and amazing composition. I dare you to find a better melody for the car. It’s constant enough to have a driving pulse, but varied enough to be exciting.
The energy of “Drive My Car” is diffused by John’s “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”, another classic. The melody is one of John’s finest, an economic and elegant collection of perfectly chosen notes that contrast the beat of the last song wonderfully. People tend to forget this is a folk song because of that exotic, poised sitar. The professional restraint of this song and clever vagueness of the lyrics serve as a striking counterpoint to the horrifying events the song depicts. Who else could make such a classy arrangement for a song that’s generally agreed to be about adultery and arson?
Paul’s “You Won’t See Me” doesn’t reach the heights of the first two songs, but it’s straightforwardness in music is broken up by pretty vocal harmonies serving a beautifully forlorn melody. Even Paul’s lyrics are maturing; you wouldn’t see lines as bleak and honest as “Though the days are few, they’re filled with tears/And since I lost you it feels like years” on any of the Fab Four albums. This song highlights the tonal diversity of Rubber Soul: we’ve had a chuckling rocker, an exotic-yet-folksy poetic experiment, and a melancholy soul song.
John’s “Nowhere Man” is much more difficult to categorize. It’s folky, soulful, experimental, philosophical, dreamlike, plays with vocals instead of instrumentals, and is weird in every note of its existence. Consequently, it’s amazing. The challenging self-reflective lyrics are set to an infectious swinging melody, and the lack of instrumental innovation is ignorable when the multilayered vocals are so fun yet resonant.
The album then slaps you with fuzz bass, introducing George’s “Think For Yourself.” George manages to hold his own against the other songs on the album, showcasing his growth as a songwriter. The lyrics are realistically conceived and emotionally relatable, Paul’s harsh fuzz bass melds with George’s soft vocals, and the melody is freakishly robust. Not a single improvement could be made to this song compositionally. I once lauded “Taxman” as George’s first masterpiece, but I now give this song that title.
John’s “The Word” is another perfect composition. Every note of the melody contributes to the confident fullness. Instrumentally, its heaviness is evocative of John’s own “Ticket To Ride”, and near the end is a short organ passage that’s unexpected but still manages to fit perfectly. The proto-hard rock sounds of this song are a sensation to the ears.
Another immediate contrast is created with Paul’s “Michelle,” a folksy French tune. If the romantically euphonic sounds of French seem like a confusing fit for a rustically simple guitar and humbly economic melody, you’ve unraveled why this song is so special: Paul blends them into a whole that is both universally romantic (French poetry and folky guitars are common musical shorthand in love songs) and fascinatingly unique. “Michelle” is one of the Beatle’s best genre-melders, a worthy closer to Side One, and my favorite song on Rubber Soul.
Side Two opens with “What Goes On,” credited to Lennon, McCartney, and Starkey. It’s the weakest song on Rubber Soul, though only by comparison to the other masterpieces dotted throughout its runtime (a similar misfortune plagues Revolver’s “Doctor Robert”). The popping guitar and rhythmic melody are well suited for Ringo’s earthy voice, and though the lyrics are simple, they show an emotional openness characteristic of the Beatles.
John pulls together another class with “Girl.” Everything in this song is memorable: the gorgeous melancholy of the melody and guitar, the deep inhalation of the refrain, as if to breathe in the word “giiiirrrllll…”, George’s nonsense chorus, John’s morose vocals and lyrics…everything is original, arresting, and often beautiful.
While John is playing with bizarre ideas, Paul is content to elevate more traditional ones. “I’m Looking Through You” uses rapid tapping and a poppy melody to create irresistible fun, but uses distorted guitar and angry lyrics to add a fiery emotional catharsis.
Speaking of catharsis, John’s “In My Life” is one of the most satisfying and emotionally complete things he ever wrote. The nostalgic murmur of the intro leads into sharply crafted lyrics and an even sharper melody. Like John’s best work, it’s restrained and professional while still being relatably emotional. John’s emotions are open rather than unbridled, and this song is a gorgeous example (though the amusing diversion of a piano solo in the middle shows he still knew how to have fun).
Paul’s “Wait” isn’t particularly interesting, but it hits all the marks of a good Paul song: sappily lovable lyrics and a catchy, viscerally satisfying melody. Set to any other collection of notes, I would probably dismiss this song, but it’s so hummable that I don’t care. The same more or less goes for George’s “If I Needed Someone,” though the arrangement is more multilayered and the lyrics bring George’s charm front-and-center. George is the most underrated Beatle, by the way.
John, on the other hand, is mad. Scarily mad. “Run For Your Life” wouldn’t feel out of place in the Rolling Stones catalogue; one of those over-the-top songs about how horrible women are that Mick Jagger would write after he got dumped again. John himself didn’t like this song, and I wish he threw himself more into the vocals, but the melody and playing are as brutal and ferocious as they could get in 1965. It’s alright, but I feel its status in the Beatles canon is often overstated.
And that’s your brain on drugs when you’re an amazing songwriter. Any questions? You already knew this was a great album before you read this review, and now that you’ve heard me gush about my personal coziest corner of the Beatles catalogue, you should go listen to it. Again.
Music: 5/5 The compositions are catchy, clever, lean, full, poised, cruel, everything they need to be.
Themes: 5/5 Most of the songs are still about love, but you could have fooled me.
Lyricism: 4/5 They’re not quite to perfection yet, but everyone involved is doing very well.
Diversity: 4/5 The textures and tones are as varied as they are recognizably Rubber Soul.
Resonance: 5/5 There is nothing boring, apathetic, or emotionally dismissible in any of Rubber Soul’s thirty-five minutes.
EXPERIENCE: Lounging alone in a Norwegian cabin in the mountains, with the occasional physically exerting hike. Gives you time to think about yourself, I suppose.
FINAL RATING: 10/10 Perfect melodies, fun arrangements and emotional maturity. One of the great meeting points of accessible and brilliant. A masterpiece.
Recommended Listening: ALL the things, but especially Michelle, Nowhere Man, In My Life, Girl, Drive My Car, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), Think For Yourself, If I Needed Someone, The Word, You Won’t See Me