When I first prepared to listen to The White Album nearly a year ago, I fully expected to hate it. I have a strange sort of relationship with The Beatles; they’re one of my favorite bands and stir up a rather broad spectrum of emotions in me when I listen to them. They’re one of the most prolific artists of all time, and also one of the most varied. The amount of music that they created in such a relatively short span of time is truly incredible, especially considering how revolutionary much of it was. But I also feel a sense of frustration when I listen to a lot of their work. Albums like Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (which I have reviewed on this site already) are excellent, but hardly live up to the lofty expectations that have been set for them by virtually every music publication in the world (for instance, all three appear in Rolling Stone‘s TOP FIVE greatest albums of all time). Frankly, I find all of those albums to have a bit of superfluous fluff mixed in with the classics, which is one of my great pet-peeves when it comes to LPs. And If they couldn’t even fill a normal-sized album with enough music to warrant a five-star rating, how could they fill more than double that amount of time without dipping into insanity?
In a way, that’s exactly what The Beatles did with the white album, which is easily their most divisive record ever. The recording sessions were filled with chaos, arguments and drugs. None of The Fab Four seemed to be on the same page in the process of recording it, which provided it with its length. But somehow, it emerged through all of the wreckage as perhaps their most substantial and rewarding work of all not because it was meant to be, but in spite of the numerous setbacks that, on paper, should’ve rendered it little more than a musical train wreck. Rather than a collage of nonsense, the lack of cohesion provides a sense of great depth and variety that has never been approached by any singular piece of music by any other artist ever. Jann Wenner, founder of Rolling Stone, said it best when he wrote that the album consisted of “the history and synthesis of western music.” Truly every genre of music that was proliferated in the ’60s was present on The White Album, and just about all of them were nailed to such a degree that I used to contend that not only was this the Beatles’ greatest album; I argued that it was in fact the greatest album ever recorded.
Upon revisiting The White Album quite a few months later, I concede that the last statement may have been a bit of a stretch. The white album isn’t quite perfect enough to be considered the very best alongside The Freewheelin Bob Dylan and Appetite for Destruction, but it still comes pretty damn close. Robert Sheffield of Rolling Stone has pointed to the depth of the album, noting that the songs are all so different, everybody has a different opinion on which is the best. Sheffield loves “Blackbird” and hates “Helter Skelter.” I love both. If I had to pick a favorite, “Happiness is a Warm Gun” would certainly be in the running, but it’s also hard to top the Dylan-esque “Rocky Raccoon,” the gorgeous “Mother Nature’s Son,” or the orchestral, almost Disney-like brilliance of “Good Night.” Even so, there are a few instances where The Beatles went a bit too far off the rails for me, particularly in “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” and “Glass Onion,” though even both of those certainly have their merits. At any rate, any Beatles album is going to have a certain degree of way-out-o-sphere weirdness with regards to subject matter, and that is probably the source of my greatest problem with much of their work; why couldn’t they just sing about everyday issues we could all relate to like The Rolling Stones and even Bob Dylan did? Probably because they weren’t exactly everyday guys. Either way, it’s poetic that the album that should’ve been the band’s biggest mess became their most brilliant work. If you can’t decide what to do, you might as well just do it all.