see also: The Beatles
All Things Must Pass
Squirm factor: 3
When I heard the sad news that George had died, I decided to take another listen to his body of work. However, this is the only record of his in my collection (I used to have more, but they departed the premises during the Great Record Purge of '99 - quoth the wife, "I refuse to move that many records again!") In a way, I'm glad this was all I had, because I got to listen to it several times through, and take in its majesty, beauty and thoughtfulness. A lot of records want to be a party on your turntable; this one wants to be a mass (and I mean that in the best way - if you've ever been absorbed by the solemn awe imparted by a high church service, you'll know the feelings that this record's best moments evoke).
The reason that the rest of George's career seems like a disappointment, and that this record clearly stands out as the best among all the solo Beatles records, is that this is one of the few records in the history of rock and roll to completely encompass the artist's breadth of vision. While there are some things the other Beatles do that George doesn't seem interested in (I've never felt moved to get up and dance to any of these songs, while "Oh My My" remains a lost classic of the disco era), there's nothing in the rest of George's records that he doesn't do here first (and usually better). There are the harmonically-challenging riff rockers, the mantra-like devotional ballads, the goofy tributes to friends and heroes, and even the sprightly hit single cover song (in this case, the hit single belonged to Olivia Newton-John, but she probably got the idea from Harrison).
George is working at the top of his game in the songwriting (he's at the point John and Paul were at during Sgt. Pepper), and there's hardly an awkward moment. His usual tendency to cram too many lyrics into the meter is absent; instead he writes busy melodies for the lengthy verses, and brings them off with well-rehearsed aplomb ("Awaiting on You All", "Apple Scruffs"). Elsewhere, he relies on good old-fashioned guitar know-how to craft an abundance of subtle hooks (by subtle I mean melodically pleasant but not obnoxious), such as the slide guitar lick of "My Sweet Lord", the verse melody of "Run of the Mill" which follows the acoustic guitar licks, the crunchy riffs of "Wah-Wah" and "What is Life" (the latter countered by a horn line), and the wah-wah'd progression in "Art of Dying."
The best songwriting, however, comes when George's voice is at the center of the composition. He was never one for grand Romantic-style melodies, but here he uses the knowledge of pop composition he learned in the Beatles and melds it with Anglican hymnal tradition to make some sturdy tunes that bear up to repeated listening. "Isn't It a Pity" finds two downward passages with large intervals concluded by a short, stepwise phrase that forces a singer to decrescendo, just as the lyrics reach "isn't it a shame", for a melody that complements the sentiment of the lyrics. "Hear Me Lord" has a gospel flavor in the bluesy verse, but the chorus is almost a fanfare. "Beware of Darkness" even has a musical pun - when the melody reaches down to the word "darkness", Harrison's voice shades just a little below his range and has a breathy element, or what musicologists call a "dark" tone.
Even more impressive than the beautiful music are the lyrics. This is one God-obsessed album, but it's never preachy. So many artists who write about their religious convictions will write in a vein designed to castigate or persuade unbelievers (as even Harrison would do later), but the songs here are not hectoring in the least (except "Awaiting on You All" which is lightened by the humor quotient - I can't think of any other songs about God with the word "bedpan" in the lyrics). Rather, they take the opposite of the fundamentalist tack - where a fundamentalist assumes that religion must take over all other aspects of life, Harrison weaves his religion into his life. He still sings about romantic love, relationships with friends, even a bit of lustful longing, but throughout is aware that the presence of God in his life transcends these mundane concerns. Regardless of a listener's beliefs, the sincerity and lyricism with which these thoughts are expressed is admirable. The imagery of a sunrise passing into a cloudburst in "All Things Must Pass" is positively Wordsworthian, while the simple expression of regret in "Isn't It a Pity" says more than a hundred rueful Janis Ian songs.
The element which truly makes this record a masterpiece, however, is the production. These are great songs, but they would sound downright skimpy played by a four-piece band. The conglomeration of dozens of musicians for each track (replicating the famous "Wall of Sound" co-producer Phil Spector originally created for such massive-sounding 60's hits as "Be My Baby" and "Da Doo Ron Ron") gives these songs the depth and weight that strike me as akin to a mass. Just as a choral mass would sound puny performed by a barbershop quartet, so too do these songs demand massive support. There are at least four acoustic guitars strumming along on "My Sweet Lord", and along with the multiple overdubs of Harrison's voice, they create the sensation of a throng of devotees alive with religious ecstasy. "Isn't It a Pity" has an unfathomably deep bass (produced by double-tracked bass accompanied by two pianos, one just playing the low notes) that lends the funereal air so appropriate to the tune. "Awaiting on You All" has a ton of percussion (including Phil Collins' first recorded performance, on the congas) that reminds the listener of the Hare Krishna airport performances so common then. "Art of Dying" has a long reverb that fades into the crescendo of the wah-wah sound, lending the impression of circularity of sound similar to the circularity of life expressed in the lyrics.
Harrison achieved everything he set out to do with this album: it is at once a devotional meditation, a celebration of the joys of the worldly life, a showcase for his own considerable abilities on the guitar, and a sonic edifice. This is the finest solo album by any of the Beatles, and if anyone is wondering about the legacy of George Harrison's life in music, All Things Must Pass stands as the masterpiece of a man who tapped into profound genius, at least for a few months in 1970.
READER COMMENTSSTEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Hare krishna." Steve says: "You are correct, I did own too many records. Didn't you see where I wrote I was glad this was the only G.H. record in the collection, so I could concentrate on it? And, for the record, I love the White Album... not as much as, say, Rubber Soul, but it's great. Thanks for writing!"
From CosmicBen: Just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed your review of George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. My girlfriend bought it for me a few weeks before Best Buy marked it down to $18, and I absolutely love it. Aside from the jams at the end, there isn't a bad song on the album. A few too many subtle ripoffs -- the obvious "My Sweet Lord" thing, "Wah Wah" sounding like "Mama" from the Temptations' Runaway Child Running Wild, the opening verse of "Run of the Mill" sounding like "Anybody here..." from "Abraham, Martin, and John" -- but most of it is original and amazing...like you said, he's fulfilling his already ambitious vision. Your review captured the greatness of the album in a calm and pointed way (as always).
STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Hare rama." Steve says: "Ben, as always I am flattered by your comments. I don't know the Temptations tune, so I can't comment, but "Run of the Mill" does sound like "Abraham, Martin & John." Which is now one of my least favorite songs, since Abe has an uncle who feels compelled to sing it (along with "Father Abraham Had Many Sons") whenever he visits. Sorry you missed out on the sale. At least you've got it on CD - I'm still listening to hissy old records. :) Thanks for writing!"
From Zach Smith: I think All Things Must Pass is a fantastic, totally original, breathtaking, fabulous piece of overrated crap. Let me explain... All Things Must Pass came out at the exactly the right time. McCartney was sloppy, Sentimental Journey...eeecchh, and unfortunately, Plastic Ono Band was too ahead of its time (although it's great). All Things Must Pass was easily the most accessible of the bunch. Now... the songs. I love “My Sweet Lord”, “What Is Life”, hell, all of disc 1. But disc 2, eecchh. “I Dig Love” is stupid silly, not cool silly. “Art Of Dying” is boring, as is track 3. I like “Apple Scruffs”, and “Beware of Darkness” is ok. But please God... the last track. There's a difference between a prayer/hymn (“Love Reign O’er Me”) and bullshit. And disc 3. Wow. Oh my God. It its so so so bbbbbbbbbbaaaaaaaaaadddddddddd. This guy has fucking Eric Clapton, Badfinger, Ringo Starr, and Phil Collins, and the "jams" still suck hell.
Boy, was I critical considering it’s the best Harrison album ever... though Electric Sounds comes close (God, I was kidding). I give it a 7 because disc one is so flawless. See ya!
STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Vudu viku." Steve says: "It is interesting that the solo Beatles first shots after the breakup were so uneven. Where was the quality control at Apple? Oh, that's right, they ran their own record company! Thanks for writing!"
From Web: I really enjoyed reading this. I had a question. The other day, when I was home from work, very bored, with a respiratory virus I put this re-issue CD on and had about the same reaction you (which was the same reaction I had about 30 years ago). But when I listened to "Run of the Mill" I had this transfiguring experience (e.g., I picked picked up the guitar and played it off the top of my head ... admittedly the chords are fairly simple), and when I read the lyrics, whereas I had always thought they were being spoken to some girl Harrison had broken up with, I realized the song must actually be a comment to Paul McCartney. Is this true?
From Jessica (aka Mrs. Steve and Abe): I would like the chance to defend myself. Please let your readers know that at the time of "The Great Record Purge of '99" (oh, please!!) you had records of monks chanting. Also, there were several classical records which you had not even opened and had kept just for the heck of it because they were free. And, let's be serious... how many copies of The White Album do you need (you always rant how terrible an album it is, plus, we have the CD version)? Okay, so you won't be able to listen to that obscure song by Broken Glass (or whatever it was) named by the Music Geek (Beat the Geeks)... but then again.... you won't be able to listen to that obscure song!! Accentuate the positive... you crank... :)
STEVE AND ABE RESPOND: Abe says, "Seoou." Steve says: "That sure is a beautiful chord sequence, isn't it. I think you may be right about the lyrics being directed at Paul - from what I understand, everyone but Paul wanted to lay low about the breakup until cooler heads prevailed, but Paul insisted on taking it public, hence "Everyone has choice, when to raise their voices." Thanks for writing!"
From Steven St. Thomas: just read your comments about All Things Must Pass.
I've always loved the 'preachy' tag that George gets post ATMP, because it seems so few actually read the lyrics to these supposed songs. To actually 'preach' at someone props the 'preacher' on a pulpit where they are 'better' than you and your sins.
And not once did George ever do that in his songs. In all the songs I have seen cited as 'preachy' or 'sanctimonious' by Mr. Harrison, not once does he implore that he is better off than you because of his spiritual convictions. He emphatically declares in lyric, that every sin you are capable of committing, he probably is just as likely to as well. And he doesn't even call it a sin.
(But one might want to look up the originations of the word 'SIN' in history - it didn't mean the same then before the Christians got to it. )
I find it a little hard to take your views of it, simply in the fact that it is the only album that you presently own from George's solo career. You said you owned them at one time, which is pretty good. But to base the opinion that this is George's best work simply because you don't have the other albums isn't really an opinion that can stand on its own two feet. It basically hobbles. If this sounds unkind or gets hackles raised, it's not meant to. I think you might even agree in the end?
I urge, and if you still have a turntable, because the CD version sucks, that you pick up Living in the Material World once again. If you believe that George's perspective was summed up succinctly on ATMP, I think you may find that George's beliefs and state of mind were better represented on Living in the Material World. It is a far more personal story, not wrapped up in a backlog of Beatles songs not used, or lyrics directly related to 'White Album'/Let It Be sessions. "Art of Dying" was written back in 1967. "The Day The World Gets Round" from Living in the Material World was written the day after The Concert For Bangladesh. I think you'll find George's phiosophies and beliefs were a lot more well defined on LITMW. ATMP was a scattered collection of songs from different years covering a wide range of emotions. LITMW is focused, and the only backlog came from "Try Some Buy Some".
The reader's comments about "Run of the Mill". Interesting. I never heard Anybody Here... to know if it sounds like it. And the "My Sweet Lord" case, I mean everyone knows that George was effectively brought to court by his own business manager Allen Klein, which is why Harrison was awarded copyright ownership of BOTH "He's So Fine" and "My Sweet Lord". The case was biased. And the judge knew it without having to know that in a western 12 note harmonic scale, a LOT of things are going to be duplicated. I can't count the number of Lennon and McCartney songs in and out of The Beatles that don't borrow something from someone else. Lennon got called up on ripping off Chuck Berry for crap's sake. And I know I've heard "Back in the U.S.S.R." somewhere before!
"Run of the Mill" being about Paul? Yeah. I'd fully agree. Took a bit of thinking and pondering a while back, and it seemed to point to Paul.
Honestly, George did some absolutely beautiful music after ATMP. You just have to want to see it. I can't make you of course, but maybe you could give it a try.
STEVE AND DENNIS AND ABE RESPOND: Dennis says, "Pwuh." Abe says, "I love Dennis." Steve says: "My objection to Living in the Material World wasn't the lyrics, it was the dreadfully slow tunes. Perhaps I didn't give it a fair chance. Thanks for writing!"
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