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Tuesday, June 12, 2018

George Harrison: Living In The Material World

GEORGE HARRISON: LIVING IN THE MATERIAL WORLD (1973)

1) Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth); 2) Sue Me, Sue You Blues; 3) The Light That Has Lighted The World; 4) Don't Let Me Wait Too Long; 5) Who Can See It; 6) Living In The Material World; 7) The Lord Loves The One (That Loves The Lord); 8) Be Here Now; 9) Try Some Buy Some; 10) The Day The World Gets 'Round; 11) That Is All.

General verdict: A mix of rather stereotypical preachiness and unique melodicity — fortunately, the latter can make you forget all about the former.

There is one big reason why George's follow-up to All Things Must Pass could never conjure up quite the same level of emotion as its predecessor did — and you already see part of that reason in the album's title. All Things Must Pass was a deeply spiritual album, and most of its songs were concerned about the brevity and transience of human existence; nevertheless, it was, above and beyond everything else, an album about human existence. But by 1973, apparently disgusted with everything that it was possible to get disgusted about — his family life, his litigations with fellow Beatles, the dire financial consequences of the Concert for Bangla Desh affair, let alone political and social concerns of the day — George no longer seemed to care much about human existence. Most of the songs on this album are about "my salvation from the material world", for which there is seemingly no redemption.

With their typical aversion to religious preaching and generally secular attitudes, many leading critics of the day had no choice but to focus on George's shortcomings as a lyrics artist this time around — and not without reason. Naturally, George Harrison, the quiet kid from lower-middle-class Liverpool, could never be mistaken for a first-rate religious philosopher, but his lyrics on All Things Must Pass were generally not bad; compared to them, the outlook presented on Living In The Material World is downright primitive, with Christian, Hindu, and Krishnaite clichés all over the place, as if the artist were consciously surrendering his independent mind to some synthetic-eclectic religious dogma. A critical outlook on the world's problems and on the inherent flaws of the human species? Acceptable. An appeal to The Lord Sri Krishna to come around and deliver the suffering artist from this horrible place? Ehhhh...

Since George produced the album himself this time around (all the songs with the exception of ʽTry Some Buy Someʼ, which was originally intended for a Ronnie Spector solo album and had been recorded in early 1971), there is also the noticeable change in the overall sound — the effect is far more personal, with George's voice no longer consistently obscured and overridden by the huge wall-of-sound ambience. Instead of having his music come down on you as some sort of overwhelming heavenly host, it feels more like letting him in to pray in the middle of your living room, which can feel uncomfortable. And it certainly gets worse if you remember that the «quiet Beatle», in his everyday life, was not at all averse to material existence and material possessions: his passion for Formula 1 racing, for instance, clearly shows that sometimes, at least, his senses were quite fully gratified in the material world, rather than in the spiritual sky.

And yet, none of this truly matters as long as we try and focus on the music. Recorded by more or less the same team that had worked on All Things Must Pass (with the notable addition of Nicky Hopkins on piano, whose presence is vital to some of the tracks), the album consists more or less of newly written material, which is still consistently excellent: the Beatle school of thought is not easy to get rid of so quickly, and no amount of disgust with the material world could let old George forget the essentials — namely, that any message you wish to impart works twice as well if it is imparted in the form of a solid musical hook. Without the wall-of-sound rumble at your heels, Living In The Material World also has a decidedly «rootsier» flair to it: folk, country, and blues influences abound, especially since George mostly plays dobro and slide, yet the melodies themselves are quite far from «generic» 12-bar blues.

The first of these melodies is also the most well-known: ʽGive Me Loveʼ was the first and only single from the record, the only song from it to be regularly played live whenever George played live (which was not often), and also pretty much the only one to carry a 100% positive and optimistic message, not only through its lyrics, but also through the twin joy of Nicky Hopkins at the piano and George doing some amazing slide runs. Almost deceivingly positive, I might add: while the last song on All Things Must Pass and the first song on Material World are both straightforward prayers to the Lord, ʽHear Me Lordʼ is in F minor, while ʽGive Me Loveʼ is in F major, and there is nothing about George's tender "give me love, give me love, give me peace on Earth" that would suggest peace and love are impossible, or even that peace and love are not already here, and that the artist is merely asking the Lord to help keep them rather than help bring them about out of nothing. The song's emotional core is, in fact, so simple that, while it is hardly possible not to be comforted by its warmth (probably the warmest he got since the days of ʽHere Comes The Sunʼ), it is quite possible to miss a certain element of psychological depth that was already there in the first opening chords of ʽI'd Have You Anytimeʼ — and subconsciously prepare yourself to be somewhat disappointed with the rest of the album as well.

Shockingly contrasting cold showers, however, begin to hit you as soon as the glowing intro is over. First, there is anger, as George vents his feelings over the ongoing Beatle-related litigations in ʽSue Me, Sue You Bluesʼ — a song whose main riff I remember directly creeping me out when I had first heard it as a small kid (and, accordingly, had not the slightest idea of what the man was actually singing about); to this day, there is something distinctly gruff-voodooistic about this particular combination of dobro and piano, even more unsettling than any given Black Sabbath riff (most probably, it's all about that brisk downward dobro swoop, as efficient in its way as the Sabbath tritone). Anger and bitter sarcasm: emotions that were not attested at all on All Things Must Pass, and are so much at odds with the atmosphere of ʽGive Me Loveʼ — in fact, this is probably the second most-pissed off ex-Beatle song after ʽHow Do You Sleepʼ in that three-year interval — that even if you happened to fall asleep in paradise during the first song, the second one will get you back on your feet in no time. (And look out for some awesome drum work from Jim Keltner on the song's numerous stop-and-start parts).

That anger vibe never truely reappears again in such an explicit form, but the mood is «spoiled» once and for all: from then on, the prevailing ambience is that of constant sorrow, the only joy being provided by the hope of eventually getting out of this place. Formally, the distinction between «rockers» and «ballads» is more or less blurred here, but most of the record spends its time in the state of a slow, solemn, spiritual procession, only speeding up to the state of a steady ʽGet Backʼ-ish gallop on the blues-rocking title track — which is, perhaps, appropriate, since it is the one song on the album presented as a decisive public pledge: "got a lot of work to do, try to get a message through, and get back out of this material world". If you do not think too hard about it, the song is kinda fun, but unlike ʽGet Backʼ, it does not consciously try to be fun — and the seriousness of its message does not quite agree with the playfulness of its rhythm, or, let's face it, the almost infantile crudeness of the lyrics (an attempt to merge personal experience with the gist of the already-not-too-original teachings of Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada), so I actually think of it as one of the album's weakest numbers.

But instead, let me point out that among all the preaching, there are some heartbreakingly aching moments to be found on the album — primarily in its slowest ballads. In particular, ʽWho Can See Itʼ is no less than a musical miracle: in its purest form, over just a few bars the melody starts out as quiet, reclusive sorrow, rises to sharp, throbbing pain, and then rises higher to blissful, triumphant revelation. George later admitted being influenced by Roy Orbison for this particular composition, but there is a certain element of utterly non-formulaic, non-commercial honesty here that would be hard to find on any Roy Orbison song, no matter how poignant or masterful (or, perhaps, this is simply admitting that George sings it like a flawed human being, rather than like a perfect angel from heaven). Although a bit less anthemic, ʽThat Is Allʼ, closing the album, is no less beautiful — a simple love confession to God or to a lady, upon first sight, but so much deeper when you put its clichéd lyrics to that mournful music and understand that the lines "that is all I want to say, our love could save the day" actually mean that "our love cannot save the day", no matter how hard you try.

Generally speaking, though, there is something to like on just about every track here. Simply the presence of Nicky Hopkins trading solos with George is enough to aurify ʽThe Light That Has Lighted The Worldʼ, as are Jim Horn's brass arrangements on ʽThe Lord Loves The Oneʼ and the last remnants of grandiose Phil Spector production on ʽTry Some Buy Someʼ. If you break these melodies down and run formal musicological algorithms on them, my gut feeling is that they will stand up tall and proud against any chosen sequence on All Things Must Pass; there is really nothing other than that vague feeling of Cosmic Epicness (for much of which the responsibility falls on Phil's, rather than George's, shoulders) to separate them from each other. It is an impor­tant feeling, for sure: despite the general recent re-appraisal of Living In The Material World, there is no way that it will ever escape from under the shadow of its so much more monumental elder brother, with its smaller sound, poorer lyrics, narrower message, and briefer gestation period. But all those who treasure George Harrison's melodic gift over formal musical innovation might ultimately think of the album as far more timeless than quite a few cutting-edge releases from the progressive or glam-rock camps of 1973 — and as much as I admire, say, Peter Gabriel or David Bowie as the leading boundary-pushers of the day, neither of them could sing "I only ask that what I feel should not be denied me now" with that much trembling passion.

5 comments:

  1. "Hear Me Lord" is in F-SHARP minor.

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  2. You are right. It is a timeless record. From a musical perspective is quite good besides his voice is a bit monotonous. Maybe he is not Heidegger or Nietzsche, but far more emotional and honest in comparison to what Paul or even John were doing in 1973.

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  3. I have a hard time remembering the melodies on this one. Give Me Love is slow, sleepy, and melancholic in its positivism. I love it, but when it's the best song and only single, that's a sign of things to come. As you said, moments of beauty, passion, anger, and sorrow, but it takes a few listens to reveal these gems and on a song-by-song basis, nothing is really spectacular. George still had great singles in him but his albums require a certain "Cheer Down" to really appreciate.

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  4. No one ever talks about my personal favorite "Don't Let Me Wait Too Long," a perfect fusing of modest pop and George's spirituality. Thought it would've been a much better first-single candidate than "Give Me Love," which I like but it's hard to see it as a #1 hit that it was here in the U.S.

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