Monday, September 10, 2012

Classic Albums: George Harrison, All Things Must Pass

My memories and music consumption are equally sensitive to the change in seasons.  This Sunday, walking with my girls in the park on a beautiful, mild September day, I recalled high school marching band competitions, 9/11, and seeing my first Nebraska football game at Memorial Stadium.  There are certain albums that also have seasonal associations for me, and among the most cherished is George Harrison's magnum opus, All Things Must Pass.  Fall is my favorite season by far, and a time that never fails to lift my spirits even as the leaves fall and the ground hardens.  All Things Must Pass's intense spirituality compliments my feelings during this time of year pretty well.

It is by far the best of all the Beatles solo records, a statement of artistic purpose and unloading of suppressed creativity that is absolutely stunning in its breadth.  While Lennon and McCartney were the principal songwriters in the Beatles, George really developed his chops over time, but was not allowed to get many of his songs on the Fab Four's records.  Considering that All Things Must Pass has at least twice as many great songs as the first solo records by Lennon and McCartney combined, I think George was in the right.  The fact that it's a triple album seems to send a message to his peers about how much he had been forced to hold back.

Harrison throws down the gauntlet on disc one, side one, which if released by itself would have been a major accomplishment.  He starts with the gorgeous "I'd Have You Anytime," which dives into "My Sweet Lord," a fervent prayer masquerading as a pop song.  Like many of the songs on this record, Harrison is not singing to a lover or his audience, but to God in devotional terms as beautiful as any piece composed by Bach.  On the next driving number, "Wah-Wah," the spiritual takes a back-seat as Harrison sings directly about the frustrations he had with the Beatles over a mighty wall of sound courtesy of famed producer Phil Spector.  (Here's an infamous clip of George snipping at Paul during the making of Let It Be to illustrate his irritation.)  He ends the side with "Isn't It a Pity," the call for peace and understanding that Lennon wishes he had written.  ("Imagine" is good but overrated, and glosses over the difficult questions George asks in this song.)

After all that, side two of disc one opens with "What Is Life," a song I love so much that my wife and I had it play as our arrival music at our wedding reception, and one that we still think of as "our song."  Perhaps he's singing to God, perhaps he's singing to Patti Harrison, either way it's a sublime expression of love.  After this string of show stoppers, the rest of the album is more varied but still as strong.  There's lighter stuff like "Apple Scruffs," lovingly dedicated to the Beatles fans who would wait for glimpses of them outside of the Apple offices, as well as "Beware of Darkness," a deeply spiritual, heavy song that I have long used as musical therapy in my own darker moments.  On lesser known songs like this, the too pretty for words "Behind That Locked Door," the moody "Ballad of Sir Frankie Crisp (Let it Roll)" and the positively joyous "Awaiting on You All," Harrison subtly obliterates the notion that the Beatles' greatness was down to McCartney and Lennon alone.

George never matched this album, but he never had to.  His former bandmates may have had many more hit records as solo artists, but none of them painted a masterpiece, and George did.  Isn't that the real goal of a true artist anyway?

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