I took another break between “Help!” and “Rubber Soul”, which makes a bit more sense. “Rubber Soul” exists in the Beatle canon as the quantum leap forward into maturity. The new demands of folk rock, especially Bob Dylan, and the access to drugs are pointed to as the contributing factors, while The Beatles used their clout to begin refining their albums into cohesive sonic statements instead of collections of singles and experiments.
It’s curious then that this great leap begins with a McCartney-helmed number that reads like a novelty. “Drive My Car” is about a woman who plans to be a huge star and offers the speaker the chance to drive her car when she explodes. It’s a strange scenario for a pop song, but you’ll have that. It’s set to a bouncy boogie woogie with glorious cowbell. It’s also a red herring, leading into the swirling, buzzing sitar of “Norwegian Wood”, a spare song about a one night stand Lennon had on tour. The dreamy chords and specific images feel like the first song The Beatles made that included substantial sensory details. This is a song from the real world where before their lyrical plaints existed in a vacuum.
“You Won’t See Me” is a slow-burning pop song bedecked with the kinds of la-la backing vocals The Who would make a career out of. There’s a newfound emotional complication that runs throughout the album, less work for teens than young adults now. “Nowhere Man” is said to be the first song by The Beatles to not address love or relationships in any sense, thank god. The lyrics read like a surreal fairy tale and take aim at the band’s listeners (while implicating the band themselves), like the future “Glass Onion” but with suggestion in the place of snark. “Think For Yourself” has the kind of collapsing chord structure of The Who, with a tension between the amount of words and notes crammed into the end of each verse, compared to the brisk chorus.
The first half of the album is marked with an undercurrent of confrontation, with lyrical demands to grow up and have an opinion, directed as much at the band as their listeners. Romantic situations are ambiguous and murky, with the roles reversed. This hot streak is partly undone by “The Word”, a completely boring and pointless song with dumb lyrics that rely on the concept of love because there is no actual concept. It’s lazy sloganeering that is saved by the mysterious and spartan “Michelle”. Mixing French, ghostly backing vocals, and bare-hearted outbursts of emotion that disrupt the otherwise soothing atmosphere, it’s a classic McCartney ballad, the kind he could shit out at will in the mid-sixties. It was one of my favorite Beatles songs back when and remains one now. It almost wasn’t recorded and even now, gets dismissed as a lark. I disagree.
“What Goes On” is a countrified rocker, a prototypical choogler like the song of the same name by The Velvet Underground recorded four years after. It’s fine, but compared to the lofty heights of the rest of the album, it feels like filler and sticks out where it would fly under the radar on earlier albums. It’s the sort of side two song the band always seems to include in their early years. The lyrics are regressive and the song’s inclusion is a reminder to present listeners that it would take another year for the band to jettison their album formula completely. “Girl” sounds like a distant cousin to “Michelle” and brings the album back to focus with more ghostly backing vocals, a tensely winding guitar line, and more emotional mystery.
“I’m Looking Through You” makes explicit the growing pains on display throughout and then electrifies them with organ stabs, elevating the song to a different sonic space. Where later albums would seem to follow the instruments and conceits into new territory, “Rubber Soul” folds new instruments and textures into accessible pop ditties. “In My Life” is a song beloved by Johnny Cash and Ozzy Osbourne, no small feat considering it invents chamber pop whole with a single instrumental break. Bands would spend the rest of the sixties aping this sound, let alone the number of bands today. “Wait” is another twisting rocker, nice chords and clattering percussion.
“If I Needed Someone” chimes like the best cuts on “A Hard Day’s Night” with more sonic space. The backing vocals are nice but the song itself never moved me much. It seems to build and chime and wind around but the release never comes and maybe it isn’t meant to, but it never interested my ears. “Run For Your Life” is a bizarre song about the speaker threatening a former lover, an odd choice to finish out the most subtle collection of songs The Beatles created to that point. Its lyrical bluntness comes off as a strange punchline. Maybe the two novelty songs on the album are meant to be bookends to the album. I can’t say. I don’t know that I understand it, but it ends an album mostly known for its sweet sentiments on a sour note.
And now, the album doesn’t ring as sweet. It plays as a collection of songs about disconnection. There’s a one night stand, several swipes at the listener, a song making fun of the subject for lacking real opinions, a creepy stalker rocker, a bittersweet song about nostalgia, several ghostly ballads that verge on obsession. All of it wrapped in poppy hooks and dreamy chords. The songs that attempt a simplistic evocation of love feel the most out of place, like hangovers from less thought-out periods of the band’s career. Even a boring song like “If I Needed Someone” grabs the listener with a lyric about a woman carving a number on the speaker’s wall, and even after that primal gesture, the speaker might give her a call.
This newfound desperation gives the album a restless, unsettled quality, a world away from the sock hop and hand holding of the years before. “Rubber Soul” is the musical equivalent of waking up one day to discover your growth spurt literally happened overnight. It’s painful and awkward, because the easy gestures that used to make sense feel like a parody and the newfound attempts at maturity are stumbles forward into an uncertain dark. “Rubber Soul” is transitional in that it asks more questions than it answers. If I were listening in 1965, I would be holding my breath, still waiting for what’s next.