Although pretty much all of the Beatles’ work is extraordinary, Rubber Soul marked a definitive shift from writing simple pop songs to crafting great albums. There’s a mastery of mood on Rubber Soul that you just can’t find on any of their previous albums. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to briefly recount the Beatles’ early years. Their first album was Please Please Me (1963), followed by With the Beatles (1963), A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Beatles for Sale (1964), and Help! (1965). All of their pre-Sgt. Pepper albums, with the exception of their debut, had different track listings on the US releases, and in the case of their second album, had different titles, resulting in lots of confusion — at least on my part — over which Beatles album followed Please Please Me.
The truth is, in the United States, Meet the Beatles! was marketed as the first Beatles album and The Beatles’ Second Album the second. Please Please Me wasn’t released in the US until the CD era. It is perhaps more important to note that most of the early Beatles albums were laden with covers. Please Please Me had six, With the Beatles had seven, A Hard Day’s Night had none, Beatles for Sale had six, and Help! had two. (A Hard Day’s Night had none and Help! had only two because they were soundtracks.) Beginning with Rubber Soul, their albums were crafted with entirely original material. I was actually looking over my list and was surprised to find that Rubber Soul and another album released in 1965 are the oldest rock albums on my list.
In the world of rock and pop, albums played a different role until Rubber Soul. It wasn’t until Rubber Soul that people realized a rock album could actually be more than just a holder of pop songs — usually meeting the appropriate radio length of two to three minutes — and covers. Even though the Beatles released albums throughout their career, the music industry was single-oriented, not album-oriented, in rock & roll’s early years. Rubber Soul would change all that. On Rubber Soul the Beatles took artistic control, and the result was some of their best work ever. There’s a palpable sense of atmosphere on Rubber Soul, with subtleties and nuances that were nowhere to be found on their earlier releases. Look no further than “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” to find evidence of their newly found maturity. The presence of a sitar gives it a distinctive, almost spiritual flavor.
Every song crawls out of the silence, presents itself, and then fades into the abyss as quickly as it came. At first it’s hard to latch on to these songs. They’re very shy in nature; when they “present themselves,” as I put it, they do so self-consciously. It’s as if the Beatles were afraid to show this material to anyone since it was such a departure from their previous work. You have to actually be willing to reach out and grab Rubber Soul. I’ve listened to this album many times, and sometimes I have put it on and forgotten I was listening to it. It’s that easy to ignore — if you passively take it in, it’ll just pass right on by and you’ll wonder what happened to the last 35 minutes.