While living and working in Edinburgh in 2008 I set out to write one million words in 366 days... but only managed 800,737.

Friday, January 4, 2008

All Things Must Pass by George Harrison

I heard George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ the other day, followed closely on its heels by Dylan’s ‘Positively 4th Street’ and realised I didn’t have either on my iPod. The absence of ‘Positively 4th Street’ I could explain: it first appeared on the Greatest Hits album, which, having the other albums, I never saw the point in buying or even borrowing.

But why did I neglect George Harrison for so long? I did the Beatles infatuation thing early on, moved through Lennon’s solo albums and the bits of McCartney (and Wings) which I could stomach (how can one man’s output be so up-and-down?), but until last week, I’d never made it as far as George Harrison sans-Beatles.

Sure, I knew about the ‘My Sweet Lord’ plagiarism story (which, in today’s world of sampling and riff regurgitation, seems like a raw deal for poor Georgie), but that was it.

Maybe I had ignored Harrison for so long because it’s the Lennon-McCartney song-writing that’s vaunted. I guess I just conveniently forgot that it was George Harrison, and George Harrison alone, with the songwriting credits for songs like, ‘Here Comes The Sun’, ‘Something’, and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’.

Anyway, I’ve now listened to 1970’s triple solo album, All Things Must Pass, and would like to say: If you too have neglected George Harrison’s solo work, do something about it.

I was surprised how the quality of the songs was maintained over what was originally six LP sides. Well, what was side one is probably the strongest, but this is not like most multiple disc albums which leave me feeling: There’s enough songs here to make one great album, but as it stands, it’s too watered down. Or: If only they'd spent the time to focus on getting 12 songs right instead of 24 songs half-right. Or: You can’t fool me with the sheer number of tracks, Red Hot Chili Peppers, you haven’t written a new song in eight years.

One thing that did occur to me as I listened to All Things Must Pass the second or third time (this Million Words thing means I spend a lot of time at the computer and iTunes is always running): the lyrics aren’t exactly challenging.

Take the first eight lines on the album’s first song, ‘I’d Have You Anytime’:

Let me in here, I know I've been here
Let me into your heart
Let me know you, let me show you
Let me roll it to you

All I have is yours
All you see is mine
And I'm glad to hold you in my arms
I'd have you anytime

It’s not particularly rich language, is it? Being fond of words, I tend to gravitate towards music which also contains interesting lyrics. For example, my all-time favourite band is The Tragically Hip. Even though a lot of the Canadian references fly over my head, Gordon Downie’s lyrics are so rich and multi-faceted that I am constantly discovering nuances I hadn’t heard the first twenty-times through. But even with The Hip, there are moments when the lyrics do not soar - sometimes they flat-out flounder - and yet the music is enough to make a song into a Five Star track. Like ‘Sharks’, which features the painful first lines, Sharks Don’t Attack the Irish / It’ mostly Australians, but the jingling chandelier riff of the bridge and the echo effect of the chorus manage to elevate lyrics like, I won't send you in a cab when / I can take you there myself then / steal a look over your shoulder…, to musical bliss.

For me at least.

While All Things Must Pass doesn’t flounder lyrically, it’s doesn’t place a lot of weight on lyrical dexterity. Rather, the music and words live together in the sort of world I imagine George Harrison hoped for when he wrote songs like, ‘My Sweet Lord’ and ‘Awaiting on You All’. It is music suited for multi-tasking, which sounds like I’m damning it with feint praise, but I don’t mean to. Now that so much music is available at our fingertips, and we can listen via so many different means (TV, radio, radio on digital TV, streaming audio via the net, downloads, portable mp3 players…) we’re using music like wallpaper. Not always, but often. I’m not saying that this is a good or a bad thing, just that some music is better suited to this semi-distracted sort of listening than other sorts. All Things Must Pass makes great wallpaper music, and very good alone-with-your-headphones-on-and-the-lights-out music.

Now that the power of selection is ours, there’s no excuse to listen to bad music (that is, what YOU consider to be bad music), so if you like the Beatles and haven’t heard All Things Must Pass, search it out and let it spin.

Three lesser known solo albums I recommend:

Battle of the Nudes by Gordon Downie – Lead singer of The Tragically Hip’s second solo effort (his first, Coke Machine Glow, has all the solo album pitfalls)

Boggy Depot by Jerry Cantrell – Alice in Chains’ main songwriter’s first solo album has three or four tracks which rival the best of AIC’s.

Stephen Malkmus, Stephen Malkmus, ex-Pavement front man was a little less indie, a little cleaner cut, in his solo debut and I kinda like it.

Special mentions: Foo Fighters self-titled (it was all Dave Grohl), Anything by Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros (not a solo album as much a whole other career post-The Clash, some Frank Black…

Solo Albums to avoid:

Twelve Bar Blues by Scott Weiland (Stone Temple Pilots, then Velvet Revolver) – mostly painful, though ‘Barbarella’ was a decent single

Cold As The Clay by Greg Graffin (Bad Religion) – one of the best voices in Punk with backing by the Weakerthans… sounds a good combo, but did I mention he’s singing Old Timey songs of the American heartland?

Bodysong by Johnny Greenwood (Radiohead) – sure, it was a soundtrack album, but it’s like listening to ‘Treefingers’ and the annoying beginning of ‘Like Spinning Plates’… for an hour.

Artists who were with a band (or bands) then became solo artists, but were so successful I didn’t think it was worth mentioning them, but now I am in case you think I neglected them: Lou Reed, Neil Young, Michael Jackson, Iggy Pop, John Lennon…

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