I consider today’s album to be one of the more significant and notable albums in the evolution of pop and rock and roll music for several reasons, which I will address in more detail below. “Rubber Soul”, the sixth studio album from the Beatles, is rated #35 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
I have always looked at “Rubber Soul” as the first of two albums that represent the “middle” of the Beatles’ unprecedented run of studio recordings in the 1960s. No longer contained by the boundaries of the traditional two minute and forty second format about relatively innocent love, this album greatly extends their boundaries, both in lyrical and musical content. This album has also been attributed as the true beginning of the “album focus” for the band, and for the industry as a whole, where the ultimate deliverable became the full album as a presentation, versus a random collection of songs.
Building on their success and shaping their format for the remainder of their career, this album is 100% original compositions, with two George Harrison songs and the first co-writing credit for Ringo spliced in between the continuously building rivalry of songwriting from Lennon and McCartney. While John and Paul still worked with each other and helped shape each other’s songs, “Lennon-McCartney” songs were increasingly becoming one or the other in reality, if not in credit.
The album opens with Paul’s simple rocker “Drive My Car”, followed by one of John’s best songs ever, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”. Highlighted by George Harrison playing the sitar, this warm and cozy ode to a slightly taboo and forbidden love remains one of my favorite songs the Beatles ever recorded. Again, this is a big step beyond “I Want to Hold Your Hand”. Paul’s “You Won’t See Me”, an extremely catchy melody comes next, and is once again followed by an even better Lennon song, “Nowhere Man”. Even as a classic Lennon tune (with great harmony vocals), if you listen closely, you can see what an accomplished musician Paul McCartney was and still is. His bass line in this song is fantastic, even under the mostly acoustic guitar tracks. Side one ends with “Michelle”, just one of many top-notch ballad melodies from Paul over the course of their career.
Highlights of side two include “Girl” by John, a melancholy, almost-ragtime, sad song with beautiful backing vocals. “In My Life” is one of the very few Beatles songs whose authorship remains somewhat in dispute. Both John and Paul claim to have had a lead role in writing this song, although John’s lead vocals through the main verses certainly skews my assumption on who wrote the majority of this song. It really doesn’t matter, it is just an uncommonly positive and affectionate love song with a brilliant melody. “Wait” is a bit of a hidden gem, really showcasing Paul’s high harmony vocal paired with John.
As noted, there are two George Harrison tracks on this album, but in my mind, he is still working to raise his level up to where John and Paul are as songwriters at this point. However, I do like “If I Needed Someone”, and you can very much hear the influence of the Byrds and their guitar sound and harmony vocals all through the track, as British bands and American artists continued to inspire and influence one another. Ringo’s lead track is the up-tempo and catchy country-esque pop song that is pure Ringo, one of his best.
In summary, Rubber Soul is major step forward for the Beatles and a great representation of their collective talents. As with other albums, this material was so strong that two of their best songs from that time, “Day Tripper” and “We Can Work It Out” were co-released as a single and not even included on the album. It is just mind boggling how many good songs this band delivered.
Often compared with their next release, “Revolver”, I tend to lean towards “Rubber Soul” as my preferred choice of the two. By this point, the Beatles had all but given up playing pop songs to stadiums full of screaming girls, preferring the relative safety, quiet and isolation of the recording studio to display and master their craft. “Rubber Soul” demonstrates the merit and rationale behind this choice, even as a band who learned their way playing thousands of live shows along the way.