Music

“The Beatles Reupholstered: Help!” By Carrick McDonald

I had to take a break from my Beatle journey (too many sweets will rot your teeth) but it’s back to the gym and back to the grind. I think I might have picked an awkward time to take a break. Help is the last Beatles album before Rubber Soul and the quantum leap forward into the album as a unified totemic statement. Help feels like a haphazard collection of songs and it seems to point the way towards The White Album and Abbey Road, in the way the art exists through a prism of disjointedness. The title track was confirmed by Lennon to be an earnest cry for help, but it lacks the raggedness that would push songs like “I’m Only Sleeping” and “I’m So Tired” into rougher emotional terrain. It’s a professional sounding breakdown.

“You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “I Need You” push deeper into Dylan terrain. “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” in particular manages the feat of sounding like The Beatles trying to sound like Dylan when he tried to sound like Woodie Guthrie. It’s curious. Almost a pastiche but I assume it’s in earnest. There’s none of the self-awareness that drives something like “Yer Blues” and it almost took me out of the mood completely. It’s odd how performative trying to sound earnest becomes. Like there’s a certain aesthetic that we read as open, emotional, and truthful, and by striving to reach those states in this manner, the moment feels rehearsed and false. I can’t say whether I enjoyed the song or not.

“You’re Going to Lose That Girl” continues the trend of driving auxiliary rhythms with what appears to be a bongo beat, a sound that pops up here and there in The Beatles’ canon and always adds a welcome presence to even the most benign song. The song itself is the kind of standard white r&b that The Beatles could have trademarked at this point in their career, but those bongos, man. It’s like drinking rum with a little umbrella sitting in it. The rum isn’t any different, but come on, it’s fun.

“Ticket to Ride” was always one of my favorite Beatles songs and one of the most enduring. Covered by The Carpenters and Husker Dü, the song is all angles and chimes, like the guitar figure at the end of “A Hard Day’s Night” expanded. The listener can practically see the go-go dancers sway in time as the song moves like irregular clockwork and constantly resets itself. The mood is melancholy and ultimately undone a little by the repetitive outro. Something in the Beatle DNA forces their hands to end a lot of their most interestingly structured songs with repetitive comedowns, like they get a little too far out and try to swim home at the last second.

Ringo gets his cut, a hokey country number called “Act Naturally”. It’s the sort of square dance Scott Walker would booze his way through a decade later (and renounce another couple years after), but damn it, I like it. Add in a couple drug references and it could be tucked away on the b-side of “Beggar’s Banquet”. Ringo’s charm carries him whenever he shows up to take a number and it’s easy to see the genial qualities he would bring to his solo material (and his job on Thomas the Tank Engine).

“You Like Me Too Much” and “Tell Me What You See” both suffer from on the nose performances and lyrics that attempt to be poetic and fall short. The leaden delivery doesn’t do the songs any favors and only make the lyrics stand out even more. They feel self-serious and slow the second half of the album down. So long as you can overlook the Dylan-aping, the mood is improved considerably by the best song on the album: “I’ve Just Seen a Face” is a melodic and unpredictable country shuffle that brings to mind something like “Bus Stop” by The Hollies, with a bit more bounce.

And then there’s “Yesterday”. For such a large moment in the band’s discography, it’s an unassuming song. It appears naturally in the track listing, marked with a string section that weaves naturally in and out of the proceedings. The lyrics are simple and veer dangerously close to schmaltz, saved by the believable vocal performance and the length of the song, which doesn’t overstay its welcome for a single second. In an album full of musical and lyric missteps and overreaches, “Yesterday” sounds fresh and affecting. After a rip through “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”, all cavernous drums and raw yelps, the album ends much the same way.

It’s over, it’s mostly enjoyable, and it certainly doesn’t overstay its welcome. I enjoyed Help a lot more this time around, but the elements that hold the album back from sheer greatness are the hodgepodge construction, the occasionally weak lyrics, and the oddly false attempts at earnestness. If I were listening with no knowledge of the future, I would feel my interest piqued at the emotional directness on display but wait for the next album with fingers crossed, hoping for a fuller exploration of the elements of this album that work. When it’s on, it’s really on, and when it misses the mark, it strikes a sour note that feels imitative instead of innovative. The album is mostly good but let’s hope for a home run next time.

A version of this post first appeared at Medium, Mar. 18, 2016.


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