This article is part of a series that we are doing on which Beatles album is the best. At the conclusion of the series, we will offer a poll on the main page asking you to vote on which one was your favorite.
The Beatles are undoubtedly one of my favorite artists of all time, and – not that passion for music can be quantified – given that my iTunes library contains just over 24,000 songs, that’s saying something. I was introduced to the Beatles when I was twelve; Mr. Hemmings, my eighth-grade math teacher at my middle school in Vancouver, loved the Beatles as much, I think, as it is humanly possible, and made it his mission to adorn his classroom with completed puzzles and posters of Beatles albums, and he made us memorize the four Beatles’ names, among other things. When I started attending boarding high school in New Hampshire the following year, the Beatles were among my favorite bands, and though my musical tastes have undergone a nearly-constant process of transformation during the past eight (oh man) years, the Beatles have firmly retained their initial place in my heart.
It’s difficult to say which album of theirs I would call my favorite, but if I had to choose, I would pick Rubber Soul. With only fourteen tracks, it’s fairly short compared to their other albums, but it stands as a testament to the turning point from their earlier, simpler work into the realm of lyrical and musical innovation and genius that we now accredit to John, Paul, George and Ringo. It’s worth noting that Rubber Soul was the first album for which the group did not have other major engagements during the time of recording, and this respite from the burden of touring becomes audible in the clarity of the record’s direction and the impressive jump in lyrical mastery and musical advancement from their previous album, Help!. To be sure, the albums that (precede and) follow it are remarkable in their own ways, but in speaking to the fine-tuning of the Beatles’ sound, no other record can claim to showcase the transition between the Beatles’ roots in early American rock ‘n’ roll and the maturation of their sound that begins with Rubber Soul.
The album opens with “Drive My Car,” a characteristically sweet, catchy and simple ditty about a seemingly frivolous girl who wants to be “a star on the screen,” but the second track, “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” exemplifies the group’s departure from their older sound and its rockabilly roots. The Indian sitar is used to a lilting, almost haunting effect, enhanced by the curious use of triple time meter, while mere ten enigmatic lines about a deteriorating romance comprise the whole song, marking a shift from their typically cheerful lyricism. Experimentation in “Michelle” takes on a French flavor, not just linguistically but also melodically. Similarly, in “Girl,” the use of classical guitar in the Greek-influenced interlude lends it an air of exoticism as it mourns the pains of romance.
The third track, “You Won’t See Me,” sketches a complex and bleak picture of love, as do “Girl” and “I’m Looking Through You,” demonstrating the progression of their earlier rhetoric. Conversely, “Nowhere Man” and “Think For Yourself” are notably removed from the Beatles’ favorite subject matter of love, and instead persuade the listener that ambiguity and indecision is preferable to a world seen in black and white. One of my favorite Beatles tracks, “In My Life,” couples nostalgic recollection of earlier days and an incredible harpsichord interlude that signifies the group’s intent to create new sounds.
“The Word” sees a return to an optimistic vision of romance, but at the same time, the verses are more complex, and the engineered piano sound used at the end of the song soon became a mainstay in psychedelic music. Similarly, “What Goes On” devotes itself to exploring the behavior and minds of lovers in an upbeat fashion, but it distances itself from the Beatles’ earlier work with the long guitar solo at the song’s end. “Wait,” too, is concerned with love, but its unprecedented use of bass and drums to build tension marks a wholly new direction for the group’s sound.
The last two tracks, “If I Needed Someone” and “Run For Your Life” dance between the Beatles’ old sound and their new: lyrically, they don’t stray too far from the topic of love, but in “If I Needed Someone,” the incorporation of minor chords in a song that starts with major ones is masterfully done, and in both, there is evidence of jam-like elements we now attribute to the psychedelic rock movement.
Rubber Soul is not the most advanced of the Beatles’ albums, but that is precisely the merit of this amazing record – that there is audible evidence of the moment at which the Fab Four began to
use cannabis actively experiment with new sounds and think more eloquently about love as well as about other topics. Only a few of my favorite Beatles songs are on Rubber Soul, but without this pivotal work, the incredible music that we hear on albums like Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band wouldn’t exist.