Album Review: The Beatles - The White Album

Where to start with The White Album? Even ignoring its historical significance, the sheer quantity of music it contains makes writing about it an unwieldy task. Consisting of 30 tracks clocking in at over 93 minutes altogether, The White Album is The Beatles’ longest by a significant margin. The word ‘sprawling’ might as well have been invented to describe this record. Inevitably, this makes it difficult to organise into a coherent review. In my Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band review, I’ve already branded The White Album their “overrated vanity project”. This was somewhat hyperbolic, but I still stand by the claim that The White Album is more of a mixed bag than many would admit. So, I think the best way to organise this review is to simply look at the songs in terms of quality.

First, though, we need to look at the album within the context of the band themselves. The White Album follows two of The Beatles best and most beloved releases – Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – in which they definitively burst the boundaries of popular music whilst maintaining their songwriting prowess to stay palatable to the mainstream. However, at the same time, they’d been indulging themselves and their public image further into the psychedelic subculture. At first, this was a vital driver of their groundbreaking creativity. However, with 1967’s Magical Mystery Tour, it reached its breaking point. I love this album and in the US (where it was actually released as an album rather than a double EP) it reached number one, but the film it soundtracked was not well received. Described retrospectively by the Chicago Reader’s Dave Kehr as “60 minutes of self-indulgent psychedelics” that are “nearly impossible to watch”, it indicated The Beatles needed to come back down to earth.

So, what did The Beatles do? They went to India, of course! The majority of The White Album was written whilst on a Transcendental Meditation course in Rishikesh in an effort to retreat from the world. It was a period of huge creativity, resulting in forty new compositions. However, when they returned to record the songs, there was friction. Arguments ranging from creative disagreements to the presence of Yoko Ono broke out, the tensions reaching their peak with the brief departure of Ringo Starr himself. Both of these situations are clearly present on the album. It’s wildly, diversely creative, packed with an astounding range of styles and genres that’s never really been matched. However, it’s also noticeably fractured. The songs feel very apart from each other, with none of the conceptual unity of previous releases and a very limited sense of collaboration between the band members.

The White Album’s most notable feature, however, is how starkly it contrasts their last few releases. There’s no wordy title referencing a surreal, elaborate concept. The only indication of the album’s content is that it’s by The Beatles. The almost entirely blank packaging further emphasises this jarringly stripped back presentation. From the outside, it could seem like The Beatles were shaking off the excess of their psychedelic period. Except, in reality, they were just moving on to a new excess. Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s seem like they’ve been carefully curated, with every track justifying its presence on the record as a fully formed piece of music. The White Album, by contrast, seems like someone moving house who just can’t bring themselves to clear out the stuff they don’t need anymore. Anyway, let’s stop talking about this record in the abstract and start talking about the songs.

The Beatles are, of course, not the first avant-garde musicians, but the genre had never been thrust into the mainstream like this before. – Nathan Brooks

Like all Beatles records, The White Album is full of classics. Back in the U.S.S.R kicks everything off in satirical style, channelling cold war tensions into an amusing Beach Boys parody that also works as a great rock & roll track. Glass Onion follows not long after, with irreverent, self-referential lyrics encased in groovy psych rock. George Harrison contributes one of his most beloved songs While My Guitar Gently Weeps, a sweeping, dramatic blues song given a hard rock edge by Eric Clapton on lead guitar. Paul McCartney further intensifies the heaviness on Helter Skelter, his successfully raucous attempt at one-upping The Who’s I Can See for Miles. Blackbird is a perfect example of the album’s diversity. In contrast to Helter Skelter, McCartney delivers an enigmatic and gentle folk tune performed solely by himself. Similarly, John Lennon ends the first disc with Julia, a beautiful, intimate solo performance calling out to his late mother.

The White Album also features two of the three versions of Revolution. The third and most conventional of these was released as a single. However, the two featured on this album (numbered ‘1′ and ‘9′) are far more intriguing. The former is similar to the single but slower and looser, like an early stoner rock track. Lyrically, it touches on the politics of 1968, one of the few consistent themes on the album. The latter is hardly anything like the single at all. Originally the coda for Revolution 1, it continues exploring the titular theme, but through strikingly avant-garde sound collage rather than lyrics. It’s an astonishingly bold penultimate track. The Beatles are, of course, not the first avant-garde musicians, but the genre had never been thrust into the mainstream like this before. It’s naturally a divisive composition, but I can’t help but be fascinated by it. Its hypnotic use of tape loops and samples – ranging from classical music to American football chants – is unlike anything else on a record this popular.

Lennon, who wrote the most material in India, contributes some of his best songs to The White Album. Happiness is a Warm Gun consists of three different songs combined into one complex, constantly shifting epic. It’s reportedly McCartney and Harrison’s favourite song on the album and an intoxicating progressive rock precursor. I’m So Tired is a vivid and witty evocation of Lennon’s insomnia, featuring one of his funniest lines branding Sir Walter Raleigh “such a stupid git”. His sense of humour is further expressed on Yer Blues, a hilariously melodramatic parody of the 1968 British blues boom. Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey provides the most significant glimpse into the tense recording sessions. Lennon contrasts a perceived ‘paranoia’ in the rest of the band against his love for Yoko Ono, propelled to exhilarating heights by a killer guitar riff. Conversely, Dear Prudence reflects the meditative atmosphere of Rishikesh through the Indian influenced lead guitars and loco-descriptive lyrics. Sexy Sadie concerns the same setting, but this time with the ‘bad taste’ Lennon felt by the end of the trip, reflected in the sardonic tone and piano riff that inspired Radiohead’s Karma Police.

The White Album’s extensive length also gives space for The Beatles who aren’t Lennon or McCartney to mature as songwriters. Harrison’s talent as a songwriter had always been restricted on previous albums simply due to the number of his songs on them. His contributions to Abbey Road, Something and Here Comes the Sun, tend to be his most acclaimed, but I think The White Album is where much of his best work is. As well as While My Guitar Gently Weeps, there’s Long, Long, Long, where Harrison transports the listener to a bizarre, mesmerising dream state. Savoy Truffle is another track influenced by Eric Clapton (or more specifically his love of chocolate) that finds Harrison developing the horn-dominated sound that defined much of his solo career. The subject matter is trivial, but the soulful, almost funky composition is irresistible. Ringo Starr also delivers his first solo song, Don’t Pass Me By, which may not be groundbreaking but is rather pleasant. Starr naturally brings a bouncy, rhythmic quality to the tune that’s supported effectively by a country-tinged violin part.

The White Album could easily come across as a mess. Certainly, the impression we have of the recording sessions is that the band were all over the place. The amazing thing with The White Album, however, is that as a whole it comes together remarkably cohesively.
– Nathan Brooks

However, The White Album’s extensive length also gives space for some sub-par songs. Much of the record’s more superfluous moments tend to come from McCartney, who seemed to perceive a double LP as an opportunity to fling everything at the wall and see what sticks. Given his talent as a songwriter, much of it does. Martha My Dear, I Will and Mother Nature’s Son are all relatively simple but very pretty and melodic songs. On the other hand, whilst Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da again benefits from McCartney’s melodic talents, his attempt at making ska music ultimately feels shallow and a little embarrassing. Honey Pie, like Martha My Dear, is a music hall homage, but it’s a far weaker song and more of an indulgent nostalgia trip for McCartney than anything else. The extremely weird interlude Wild Honey Pie is honestly much better, if only for its experimental novelty. However, McCartney (and the album’s) lowest point has to be Why Don’t We Do It in the Road? Repetitive and tasteless, its best quality is its miraculously short length.

There are many more ups and downs on The White Album that are harder to categorise. Ups include Cry Baby Cry, best known for its eerie ‘can you take me back?’ outro and Birthday, one of those rare Lennon-McCartney tracks actually written by both of them. John and Paul also bizarrely both have a go at a western inspired track, Lennon’s being The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill and McCartney’s being Rocky Racoon. They’d both be rather effective, epic evocations of the genre if it wasn’t for the silly voices and accents that give them more of a parodic quality. Piggies is Harrison’s only misstep on the record, with its unsubtle political metaphor undermining the excellent baroque pop instrumentation. However, the lush lullaby Goodnight perfectly counterbalances the unsettling terror of Revolution 9, closing the album beautifully and comfortingly.

The White Album could easily come across as a mess. Certainly, the impression we have of the recording sessions is that the band were all over the place. The amazing thing with The White Album, however, is that as a whole it comes together remarkably cohesively. The music is organised in such a way that the progressions feel logical, despite how eclectic the songs actually are. Most importantly, The White Album keeps you listening through all 93-minutes. There’s never a dull moment and even when there’s a weaker song, there’s always something better right around the corner. On paper, The White Album may be an “overrated vanity project” but when you actually listen to it, it ultimately feels like another incredible album by arguably the greatest band of all time. Can you really ask for more?