The Beatles White Album, freshly remixed and super delux-ified with stereo remasters of the original 4 and 8-track cuts and several alternate takes that reveal the development of the record, is hard to compare to anything else.
Of course, by the time of its release in 1968, the Beatles had been through a lot. They stopped touring entirely. They had starred in two comedy films, put out a number one record umpteen times across the world, and wrote the ground-breaking concept album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It is often said that the four lads from Liverpool were stretching the boundaries of what an album could sound like, could feel like. For that reason, the White Album is a unique record.
Their manager Brian Epstein had died a year and a half before, leaving the band in a sort of leadership flux. The band launched their own record label, Apple, to release their work. They were coming back from a tumultuous India trip, where John and George returned disenchanted after allegations that the maharishi was corrupt.
Real tensions were present when recording for the first time. Ringo even quit the band for two weeks, and Paul had to drum.
It is in this light that makes the White Album what it is: An update on who the Beatles were becoming, who they were at that moment, and how they were beginning individuals as artists.
The White Album feels different than the rest of the Beatles catalogue because there is an insistence on individual work. At times, it feels like Paul or John or George are taking turns fronting the group, and everyone else supports. Instead of the elements “coming together” to make the song more about the whole, the White Album has a lot more conventional tracks with lead parts and supporting parts.
However, at 30 tracks and an hour and a half of music, it is way more wide-spanning and experimental; a mixture of ideas as opposed to one unified statement.
Each song that begins a side of the album hooks the listener in with an upbeat easy to enjoy track. Take the opener like Back in the USSR on Side 1 or Birthday on Side 3. Both tracks rock hard, and set the table for the series of mood changes as each side progresses.
It gets weird at times too.
I can only imagine purchasing the White Album in ’68 and hearing the release of throwaway tracks like Wild Honey Pie, or the avant-garde Revolution 9. “This isn’t the Beatles,” one might say.
Well, it is the Beatles.
That ability to change the mood is what this album does so well. It’s kind of like how a radio station would program an hour of sound, changing tempos and feel, so that the tracks flow into each other.
That’s why I don’t think the White Album works as well as a single album. It would still be great because the best 13 songs are on par with any other Beatles record, but it would certainly not in the conversation with best, grandest, or greatest, without the entire strange, humorous, comprehensive, and bewildering collection. The delivery is what gives it punch.
The While Album is the clearest foreshadowing of what each of the band’s solo careers would sound like. Although, hard to believe, a lot of songs didn’t make the cut for the record, like Paul McCartney’s Junk or George Harrison’s Not Guilty, that would be released on albums years later.
Hearing these individual flavours, strips down and deconstructs the mystique surrounding the previous records.
If you’re curious about the Beatles story, the chapter that encompasses the White Album is so crucial. After the White Album things got even more tumultuous for the group.
A year and a half later, the Beatles recorded their final music together and were essentially finite.
But the White Album is the clearest example of what each member brought to the group, a deconstruction of all that is behind the allure of The Beatles.