I’ve been putting together a post about my favourite Beatles songs for years now, but I just can’t be arsed finishing it. Every few months I go back to it and add a few more entries. I think I’m almost done, but it looks like this post will beat that one to the punch. Spoiler alert – Across The Universe is on that post. But that’s in the future, maybe, and this is now, maybe (ha, no, you did post that list first, and now you look like a fool – you fool!).
Across The Universe comes along fairly late in the careers of The Beatles. Appearing on Let It Be in 1970 I’ve always viewed it as their swan song, their final great. The song actually appeared in its original form on a charity compilation album one year earlier called Nothing’s Gonna Change Our World, with the song itself being written a year before that. While there are obvious differences between the two, both feature the dreamy Lennon vocals and lyrics and a trippy production. If anything the original feels more like an experiment than a song, with swirling guitars at different levels and high-pitched backing vocals. I think it’s sweeter, more folk driven. It’s the Let It Be version I love though, and the one most people know.
Lennon’s lyrics run the gamut from simplistic cat calls to sophisticated and nonsensical humour, but for my money Across The Universe is his best lyric. Every line flows so neatly and read from a page or a screen without music, it sounds musical. Of course when mixed with with the dreamlike music and Lennon’s drawling delivery, the lyrics take on a heightened quality and propel the song to heavenly heights. It’s all the more impressive when you consider that there isn’t a lot of room for the music to breathe alongside the lyrics – each line has so many words and Lennon sings them so slowly that he just about gasps the final syllable just as melody ends and the next begins. There are any number of immortal lines, from the simple and eternal ‘nothing’s gonna change my world’ to the world expanding ‘jai guru deva om’, from the opening ‘words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup’ to the ending ‘limitless undying love which shines around me like a million suns’ – it feels like the end of something; a farewell, yet a hopeful reminder that nothing ever truly fades or dies.
The song’s opening is unassuming, an almost mundane collection of lazy chord strokes which belies the emotional undercurrent. In spite of the slurring melodies and hazy vocal delivery, that undercurrent comes to the fore, aided by brief string swells and choirs and tamburas until it peaks with the transcendent feeling the band had been hunting for in their last series of albums. As perfect as the Let It Be version is, the song didn’t turn out how John wanted it to. He felt the above observations were to the detriment of the song and wanted it to be tidied and polished before release, with better vocals and playing. I’m sure that version would have been good too, but what we have is near perfection.
As with every Beatles song, there are a multitude of covers to get through – everything from angsty upstart Fiona Apple, to red-headed harangue-Queen of Air Hostesses Cilla Black, as well as David Bowie. None touch The Beatles version(s).
Let us know what you think of Across The Universe in the comments!