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The White Album: Backhanded brilliance 50 years later

| Monday, November 12, 2018

Joseph Han

In many ways, on the fiftieth anniversary of its release, the cover of “The Beatles” tells a much more coherent story than the songs within it.

The cover of the 1968 album, more colloquially known as the White Album, is stark white with the two words “The Beatles” crooked and located just off center in bold, Helvetica font. It’s simple, yet frustrating in its slight imperfections — 10 slanted letters. It is purposeful, almost desired, inaccuracy.

This simplicity of the White Album stands out in sharp contrast with its predecessors and its successors.

The covers of The Beatles’ two preceding albums, “Magical Mystery Tour” and “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” are messes of color, emotion and visage. They both offer so much that it is tiresome to focus on any one thing within them. To give one of them a nickname as cohesive and simple as that of the White Album would be nearly impossible. An album cover with Edgar Allan Poe, Marilyn Monroe and George Harrison doesn’t particularly lend itself to any sense of oneness.

So too, with the record that came after the White Album. “Yellow Submarine” is simplistic yet logical. It is by no means as erratic and fanciful as their aforementioned albums of 1967, but it knows what it wants to be and accordingly depicts it. All of its phrases are centered and all of its letters are straight.

As evident in its album art, the White Album is, and was, a change of pace for The Beatles. The albums that precede it are rich with experimentation, color and life — exuding the peace and merriment that their covers depict. And the albums after it, although few, exhibit an intellectual return to more traditional rock — one much more grown-up than that of their early albums, “Help!” and “Beatles for Sale.”

The White Album remains caught in-between these two worlds and two distinct types of The Beatles. This discord most obvious manifests in the anxiety suggested by its cover, but the two discs and nearly 30 tracks that make up the album only speak to it further. The album itself may be an uncomplicated “white,” but its contents are an incoherent, out-of-order rainbow — something like VYOGIRB.

The record’s A-side opens with the aggressive, satirical “Back in the U.S.S.R.” — a song that romanticizes the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War only six years after the Cuban Missile Crisis. It opens the album with an unapologetically political message. “And the Moscow girls make me sing and shout” is a phrase that would have resonated with most of the West, but most people would have been shouting for a different reason than The Beatles did. 

If “Back in the U.S.S.R.” gives off any notion that the White Album is to be a strictly satirical one, however, that notion is quickly dispelled. Following this song are the somber, reflective, eastern-sounding “Dear Prudence,” the cryptic and confusing “Glass Onion,” and the upbeat, noisy “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”

Each of the three songs have different beats, different messages and, in many ways, don’t seem to be a part of the same album. This is a trend that only persists throughout the album, from the self-evident blues, jazz feel of “Yer Blues” to the hard rock, raucous “Helter Skelter.” The songs are all independently strong, often brilliant, but they don’t relate to each other — each song is one of thirty different colors that somehow blend into a perfect white.  

Thematic detachment, however, doesn’t inherently imply a bad album. But compared to the uniformity and cohesion of The Beatles’ earlier records like “Rubber Soul,” it’s a departure that is slightly jarring. It is a disunity that is only further illuminated by the fact that during the recording of the album Ringo Starr temporarily left The Beatles and only two years later the band famously broke up for good.

If the White Album were just a ten-track album with a common theme and sound, however, it wouldn’t be a good thing. It’s an album that is beautiful in its imperfections and memorable due to the very things that it can be criticized for.

Almost none of the songs on the album could fit onto any other album by The Beatles. The White Album is a collection of orphan songs with no other home than a place where genre, sound and theme don’t matter. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is as reflective as many of the songs on “Abbey Road,” but it lacks a certain feeling of finality that all of the album’s other tracks possess. “I Will” and “Blackbird” are as simple and idiomatic as much of “Beatles for Sale,” but they have a maturity that would put them out of place. And, “Birthday” might be as pop-loving and harsh as the often-screamed out lyrics of “Help!,” but, unlike its predecessors, it feels genuine and unique.

Yes, all of the songs on the White Album could have been released as singles, but there’s a beauty in them all being in the same album. It gives them one thing where they can relate — seeming unity in their disunity. Besides, what are fans going to do with 30 singles that are all released nearly at once? The Beatles needed to release an album, and these are the songs that presented themselves. Is that a crime? Are the songs any less spectacular because they don’t relate to each other?

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