Rubber Soul is the stepping stone album from The Beatles marking the shift from the pop perfection of Help to the experimentalism of Revolver and beyond. A mix of both worlds it shows the band pushing all the known boundaries of pop and rock music, changing both genres forever. Things were being done both lyrically and musically that had never been thought of before, new styles were being borrowed and adapted, new production techniques, new song writing skills, new instruments all employed to propel the band forwards. Even today it sounds new and challenging and very few first time listeners should find it dated. Of course there are still one or two songs that people won’t enjoy and they hadn’t yet reached the heights of Revolver and Pepper. There is a new sophistication with the themes and lyrics, gone are the bland outbursts of love and school boy cynicism, replaced with a more developed, poetic, and intelligent style. Nothing in simple anymore and everything in the music and lyrics is conveyed with ambiguity.
`Drive My Car’ starts the album and instantly shows the lyrically progression the band has taken. It is the first song to truly feature strong original lyrics, moving on from the variations on love from before. With it’s euphemism for sex and themes about fame and doing anything to achieve it, it displays both the dark side and comedic spark of the band. Obviously this sort of thing was happening in the band at the time and in many other bands, it’s both an in-joke about groupies and a celebration of them. With it’s catchy chorus and memorable `beep beep’ moments it was destined to become a staple for car adverts through the decades. The guitars are much more blues influenced than anything that had gone before, and the percussion and piano has a distinct jazzy feel.
`Norwegian Wood’ is a Lennon ballad showcasing the band’s change of perspective to writing songs about the darker side of love, and themes which recur through the album such as deceit, jealousy, misogyny, possession, revenge etc. The first thing to notice is the Eastern influence which would be greater on subsequent albums. The new instruments fit in seamlessly with the traditional guitar use and vocal harmonies. Dealing with an affair, paranoia, and revenge the lyrics are a massive step up from anything else the band had written. Poetic, ironic, and with a story telling feel it marks the new Beatles era.
`You Won’t See Me’ has a nice melodic intro after a percussive start building up to typically sweet harmonic intro. Again the bridge switches to minor chords for added melancholy. The lyrics speak of a breaking relationship, depression, and not being able to carry on when the one you love keeps turning you away.
`Nowhere Man’ can both be taken as an introspective Lennon number, and a song decrying any number of generations- his parents for being tightly conformist, later one for being passive and irresponsible. It is notable for being the first Beatles song which doesn’t deal with love in any way. Lyrically it is quite clever and biting, though musically it is simple and uninspired. I see it and the next song as a rallying call to the kids to start making a change in the world rather than sitting back and watching- something which would become Lennon’s quest for the rest of his life.
`Think For Yourself’ is a Harrison penned track dealing with individuality and not trusting and blindly accepting other people’s and groups’ views. You can always rely on Harrison making a unique tune which is set apart from the other songs on any album and the same is true here. The unusual guitar sound makes the song memorable, the lyrics are as strong as anything Lennon was writing at the time, and the melodies are unlike most other tracks.
`The Word’ is a pseudo- political song by Lennon covering his attitudes with the metaphor of love, as if he was testing the water or breaking in the fans gently before the more overt messages of later work. The song itself is fairly repetitive, standing out by the use of the Harmonium towards the end.
`Michelle’ mysteriously won the Grammy for song of the year in 67, a rather doleful ballad by McCartney notable for its French lyrics and feel. This is one I usually skip- still a good song, it just bores me for some reason.
`What Goes On’ is a very country feeling song with good guitar from Harrison, and Ringo sings it very well accompanied by some high pitched harmonies. It is quite a simple love song with darker lyrics about confusion and mistrust. A fast paced song it helps to lift the middle part of the album.
`Girl’ is quite a melancholy love song, with lyrics speaking about being in love with someone but not being sure why. It is memorable for the sighing melodies, strong lyrics, and added beats towards the middle part and end.
`I’m Looking Through You’ is an up tempo down beat McCartney song about how people and love can fade and change over time in a relationship. Melodic and with good lead guitar it sounds quite angry yet happy at the same time.
`In My Life’ is the stand out song on the album and the best Beatles ballad. Full of powerful lyrics, regret and misty eyed nostalgia, yet it has eternal hope for the future. The melodies are beautiful, the interesting middle part giving a Renaissance twist and the recurring riff is soft and sweet but free of soppy sentiment.
`Wait’ is an unusual almost off key song that further shows the group’s experimentation. The lyrics speak of coming back to a loved one after being apart, something the group were feeling after many tours. There is irony in the `I’ve been good- as good as I can be’ considering the affairs of the band members.
`If I Needed Someone’ is a Harrison penned song marked by a catchy lead guitar line. Again the song employs minor chords for the chorus to suggest that not everything is as perfect as it should be. The lyrics are not exactly bitter, but neither are they the sort of words you would expect a pop band of the time to be singing, the narrator saying if they have nothing better to do then they may find a moment to squeeze in the subject.
`Run For Your Life’ is a much derided song amongst fans, and later by Lennon himself who wrote it. Accused of misogyny but perfectly apt considering the feelings one has can have the lyrics speak of jealousy of other men, possession over a loved one and including a famously dark line borrowed from an Elvis song. These feelings would be developed and return on Jealous Guy but here they are less subtle and more angry and accusing. The music rattles along quickly and has a blues/country feel to it. A strange end to the album.
Rubber Soul has plenty of flashes of brilliance but being a stepping stone album it doesn’t have the quality of the albums which bookend it. It is still classic Beatles and features some of their best songs, but it is inconsistent. Naturally this is subjective and some of the songs I am not overly fond of her will be another’s favourites. What we can agree on is that it clearly shows the moving towards greater artistry, creativity, and experimentation which would herald the next two albums as two of the best albums ever.