By the time the Beatles reconvened to record the follow-up to Sgt. Pepper, they had already begun to splinter, with each member doggedly pursuing a musical vision that didn't necessarily jibe with the others'. Nor did it jibe with what the group achieved on their groundbreaking 1967 album. If the Beatles were consciously trying to distance themselves from the layered, whimsical sound of Sgt. Pepper, they couldn't have done better than The Beatles, also known as the White Album because of its plain white cover. Although it's blessed with the same studio trickery and segued sequencing, none of the songs replicate the sophisticated pop synthesis of that record; in fact, very few of the songs on the long, sprawling double album sound as if they're full-fledged band efforts. Each song is an entity unto itself, trying its own distinct style. There is no internal logic, as there was on Sgt. Pepper -- the White Album simply sprawls forth, touching on anything and everything it can.
For some, particularly fans of the seamless Pepper, this makes for a frustratingly scattershot record, but for other listeners, the White Album is a singularly gripping musical experience. There certainly is filler littered throughout the record, but all the filler has a purpose, contributing to the overall feel of the album. Furthermore, the filler isn't so much filler as it is a series of disconnected ideas, all executed brilliantly and elaborately. No idea -- not even the minute-long dissonant rant "Wild Honey Pie" or the simple vamp "Why Don't We Do It in the Road" -- is simply thrown away; instead, it's milked of all its possibilities. Perhaps this is because the four members were so possessive of their own musical ideas that they wanted to devote all their energies to their own tracks. It's certainly the reason why the record became a double album -- no one had the desire to sort through the material to craft a single record.
Then again, the White Album needs to spread out, it needs to have its loose ends and detours, because what is interesting about the album is its sprawl. Never before had a rock record been so self-reflective, or so ironic; unlike Zappa, who wore his satire on his sleeve, the Beatles deliver the Beach Boys send-up "Back in the USSR" and the British blooze parody "Yer Blues" straight-faced, so it's never clear if these are affectionate tributes or the wicked satires they really are. Also, it's inherently fascinating to hear McCartney develop the charming domesticated tunesmithery ("I Will," "Blackbird," "Mother Nature's Son") that would come to distinguish his solo work, while Lennon rocks ("Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey") and rants ("Revolution 1," "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," "I'm So Tired") into his own solo style. That's hardly the extent of their contributions, however. Lennon also turns in two of his best ballads with "Dear Prudence" and "Julia"; scours the Abbey Road vaults to create the musique concrète collage "Revolution 9"; pours on the schmaltz for Ringo's closing number, "Good Night"; celebrates the Beatles cult with "Glass Onion"; and, with "Cry Baby Cry," rivals Syd Barrett for British childhood psychedelia. McCartney doesn't reach quite as far with his efforts, simply because he values songcraft too much, but his songs are continually stunning -- from the music-hall romp "Honey Pie" and the mock country of "Rocky Raccoon" to the ska-inflected "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and the proto-metal roar of "Helter Skelter."
Clearly, the Beatles' two main songwriting forces were no longer on the same page, but neither were George and Ringo. Lennon and McCartney stuck to the traditional allotment of two Harrison songs per LP, but it's clear from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the canned soul of "Savoy Truffle," the haunting "Long, Long, Long," and even the silly "Piggies" that he had developed into a songwriter who deserved wider exposure. And Ringo, who was allowed to record his first original song ever, turns in a delight with the lumbering country-carnival stomp "Don't Pass Me By." All of it is impressive on its own terms -- none of it was quite meant to share album space together -- but somehow The Beatles (a singularly ironic title, considering the fractured state of the band) creates its own style and sound through its mess. And, in its own way, it was nearly as influential as Sgt. Pepper, since scores of post-punk bands picked up on various threads running throughout the record, and many of the great albums in rock history -- Exile on Main St., London Calling -- approximated the same great sprawl that makes The Beatles so unique.
[The conventional wisdom on The Beatles -- the record commonly known as the White Album -- crystallized not long after its 1968 release: it is the record where the Fab Four began to fall apart. Much of this comes from its double-album sprawl, which provided plenty of space for strangeness, jokes, and songs seemingly performed alone, all contributing to the impression that the album was a series of solo projects crammed into one album. The intent of the Super Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition is to correct that narrative by emphasizing band interplay via a new remix from Giles Martin and, more importantly, by offering three discs of sessions and the first official release of the legendary acoustic demos recorded by George Harrison, John Lennon, and Paul McCartney at Harrison's home in Esher. As good as Martin's remix is -- it may not be as revelatory as his stereo remix of Sgt. Pepper in 2017, but it does manage the trick of sounding rich and bold without betraying the feel of the original -- the real appeal of this deluxe reissue is the unreleased material, all presented in sparkling fidelity.
This high fidelity is especially welcome on the Esher demos, which were heavily bootlegged but have never sounded as clean and rich as they do here. Heard within the context of the White Album, the demos prove that songs that seemed silly or ambiguous on the album -- such as "The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill," "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," or "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" -- were fully formed early, right alongside early versions of songs later heard on Abbey Road or on solo albums (McCartney's "Junk"; Lennon's "Child of Nature," which became "Jealous Guy"). The very fact that the Beatles' three core songwriters were woodshedding together, coming up with more material than could fit on a single album, speaks to how they could still create together, and the rest of the deluxe edition underscores this point. Far from sounding fractious, the Beatles seem playful as they work out the kinks in their new songs, test-drive material ("Let It Be" is heard in a brief stomping nascent incarnation that nearly seems psychedelic), blow off steam by covering oldies, and generally do the hard work of recording.
Along the way, a few celebrated outtakes are aired -- "Not Guilty" and "What's the News Mary Jane" are now rightfully part of the White Album canon -- and the full-length "Can You Take Me Back" (still not much more than a fragment) is unearthed, as is a slow-grooving 12-minute version of "Helter Skelter," but what delights about the Super Deluxe 50th Anniversary Edition is how it is full of surprises. Some of these surprises are subtle, amounting to slight turns of phrases, but there are also major revelations, including a looser, strum-along "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" and a version of "Good Night" shorn of its strings that finds Ringo supported by plucked guitar and harmonies from the rest of the Beatles. All these alternate versions, both big and small, enhance the White Album, pushing it away from the weird, cloistered record of lore by highlighting the imagination and play fueling its creation. Taken on their own, the session tapes are absorbing listening, but they also have the side effect of making the finished The Beatles not seem like a mess, but rather a deft, cleverly constructed album that accurately reflects the abundant creativity of these sessions.]