“With the Beatles” amplifies the eccentricities of “Please Please Me” in good and bad directions. Let’s start with the cover. Controversial in the industry, the cover was disliked because the members of the band aren’t smiling. As if their mop-top ‘dos weren’t bad enough, the next release is a stark image of the four looking like disembodied heads in a funeral parlor.
Accordingly, the band’s sound on this album feels a bit more lived-in and direct. I assume Beatlemania makes one a little rough around the edges. There’s considerably less echo around the margins. The songs are crisp and upfront, more rhythmic than the shimmering chords of the debut.
As far as album openers go, “It Won’t Be Long” is no “I Saw Her Standing There” and the album stumbles out of the gate. “All My Loving” is the first Beatles album track that is really great, in part because it captures that hopeful melancholy that anyone who was ever a lovesick teenager knows all too well.
When the performances are good, they are very good, and when they aren’t, the album drags. From their original run, “With the Beatles” was always my least favorite. It feels like a product and just when a song gets interesting, the band reigns it in. The way the band hangs on the phrase “I’m so sad and lonely” in the song “Little Child” is odd and memorable, defeated by the boring way the chorus retreats into a standard blues-based rock return. “Till There Was You” is a melancholy acoustic lounge jazz number that hints, for the first time, at the breadth of what the band would eventually cover, not quite far out but definitely noteworthy plopped in the middle of Skiffleville.
The strongest moments on the album come in the form of covers. “Please Mr. Postman” is a song that is impossible to screw up and the strained vocals on the chorus evoke the hysterical lust of the best-known version favorably. Ditto for “You Really Got a Hold on Me”, another lament in the higher register that succeeds due to the increased studio confidence of the band.
Not up to par is “Roll Over Beethoven”. Compared to the in-the-red shred of Chuck Berry’s original, The Beatles simply can’t keep up. A couple of Little Richard style “ooh” sounds are noted but do little to amp up the excitement, which all but disappears from the second half. The song “Hold Me Tight” sounds like a sluggish take on the tight vamps The Zombies would raise to an art form a few years later. The final three songs are more lively but pale in comparison to the energetic racket of “Twist and Shout” that sent the last album out like an orgasm.
Presumably touring and recording was wearing on the band, but not to advantageous effect like “Beatles for Sale” or “Help” to come. To my ears, “With the Beatles” is still history, but a smidge more approachable this time around. If you told me this band would be experimenting with drone and noise a couple years later, I still wouldn’t believe you, but a few of these songs would slay at the sock hop.
A version of this article was originally posted on Medium, Nov. 18, 2015.