Thursday, October 18, 2012

Beatles: A Hard Day's Night (1964)

The soundtrack album for their first movie was the only all-Lennon/McCartney affair in the whole Beatles catalogue. It shows them at the apex of their Beatlemania songwriting period, as Lennon was about to enter his "fat Elvis" period, where he grew understandably disillusioned by the machine. In the meantime, of course, the order was to find enough ways to sing about being in love - or alternatively being hurt - to fill an album with the spirit and verve that the Beatles were known for. As a result, more than any of the Beatlemania-era albums, this is 100% Pure Beatles.

The album benefits from the presence of the blockbuster singles "Can't Buy Me Love" and "A Hard Day's Night," but the album tracks showed they were hitting the mark more and more, as "Any Time At All" and "When I Get Home" are only a degree or two off in quality from those, with the same confidence and energy and maybe just a bit more grit. "When I Get Home," in particular, matches those Beatles screams with an Elvis-like swagger in the middle eight.

The standard narrative holds that John's stuff started getting darker on the next album, but you can see him start to give more voice to negative feelings - self-doubt, paranoia about the world around him - on these otherwise conventional pop songs. "I Should Have Known Better" is an interesting case. On one level, it's a pretty genuine declaration of devotion, but it uses that title phrase as a half-kidding accusation, like despite the positive feelings, someone got one over on him. Then there's the demanding "Tell Me Why" ("Tell me whyyyy you cry, and why you lied to me"), the vengeful, shamed, country-tinged "I'll Cry Instead" and the outright violent "You Can't Do That." It doesn't necessarily make these songs any better to know John later expressed darker feelings toward himself and others, in his music and interviews. But at the time they must have seemed like relatively innocuous pop statements, and he was starting to open up the formula a bit, finding ways of expanding the whole language of the Beatles popsong, while never breaking it. And album pitched at this level for a half hour would need that much extra effort. And they make it seem, like I said of the title track, effortless.

Then there's "If I Fell," which is practically a longform poem, expressing doubts in one's ability to fall honestly in love - there's that insecurity again, put into an excellent song. And Paul, for his part, writes some of his best work to date. With "And I Love Her" he outdoes the covers he had laid down on previous albums, creating something that, although a bit lightweight, has the exact sound it needs: an early example of his skill as a musical composer. Even better, though, is "Things We Said Today," which takes the opposite route of the Lennon songs. Outwardly, it sounds almost perilous, but ultimately becomes reassuring: it calls up that suppressed darkness from elsewhere on the album and beats it with that beautiful lyric: "Someday, when we're dreaming / Deep in love, not a lot to say / Then we will remember things we said today." Then that middle bit becomes quite spine-tingling. Rock-solid, and unlike anything else on the album.

By mid-1964, when this album was released, there were expectations of what the Beatles were, and what they were supposed to bring people. This album's mission was to deliver that for two solid sides. It does, and in places subtly advances their progress as artists, which we now know to be inevitable but was then thought limited. They never did record another album like this one, nor should they have. Like I said: this was the highwater mark of Beatlemania. The next 12 months would see the band try to find ways to move beyond that in an awkward but worthwhile transition. Think of it this way: If you were trying to take a snapshot of "The Beatles," this would be the first clear one without any motion blur.

Buy this album: iTunes Canada // iTunes USA // //

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