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I’d listened to the Beatles’ sixth album ‘Rubber Soul’ once before I read the book ‘Norwegian Wood’
by Haruki Murakami. On a first, admittedly fleeting listen, ‘Rubber Soul’ seemed somewhat of a naturalistic progression from the upbeat 60s pop of the Beatles’ prior albums with a bridge towards the following, radically
experimental and seemingly more concrete ‘Revolver.’
The Beatles are basically the soundtrack for most of Murakami’s books, especially his bestseller
‘Norwegian Wood,’ affectionately named after the standout track from ‘Rubber Soul.’ So, after
reading Murakami’s book, I revisited and then began religiously listening to ‘Rubber Soul.’
Listeners are initially struck by the upbeat ‘Drive My Car,’ a track which is, to all appearances,
characteristic of the group’s prior 60’s Pop-rock style. Though the song does delve into a
quasi-experimental sound in the mixing of prominent guitar riffs and piano, it does little to prepare
listeners to the following track, ‘Norwegian Wood.’
‘Norwegian Wood’ opens with a sitar, a sound radically different to the Beatles’ previous
discography, implemented in an attempt to conceal the narrative which delves into John Lennon’s
extra-marital affair. At first, it can be off-putting however, the sound quickly settles into its role as a
refreshing psychedelic accompaniment to the sombre, poignant lyrics.
The story is that of a simple, melancholy affair which ultimately ends in the narrator realising that his
partner of the previous night had left for work, which is encapsulated in the beautiful image from the
song’s parenthesized title- “This bird had flown.” It ends hauntingly- with the burning of the ‘Norwegian Wood’ room, a finale chosen by Paul McCartney that encompasses the fleeting nature of the love in the song and album.
Some tracks on ‘Rubber Soul’ do fall short of its wider masterful psychedelic innovation, including
‘What Goes On,’ ‘Run For Your Life’ and ‘The Word,’ which are by no means bad, but are safely
packaged in the early 60s pop-rock sound.
The rest of ‘Rubber Soul,’ follows ‘Norwegian Wood’s’ experimental, melancholy lead. ‘Michelle,’
features McCartney weaving French into a mournful lovesong that climaxes in a strikingly raw
exclamation: “I want you, I want you, I want you.” Contrastingly, ‘Nowhere man’s,’ metaphysical lyrics preamble later Beatles abstraction in songs like “I am the Walrus.”
‘In My Life’ marks the tail end of the album with an opening minimalist, clean guitar riff that leads
into atmospheric melancholy harmonies, seeking to depart from earlier jaunty pop harmonies in songs
like ‘She Loves You.’ The song, alongside ‘Norwegian Wood,’ ‘Michelle’ and ‘Girl’ evokes the
memory of a lingering love.
With nostalgia for a past love, lyrical mastery, and psychedelic experimentation, it’s not hard to see
why Murakami chose ‘Rubber Soul’ for the focus of his book. On a surface level, the album works as a bridge between earlier pop anthems and experimental ‘Revolver,’ however, with a careful listen, this album runs much deeper than existing to be walked on to reach later innovation. As the name suggests, ‘Rubber Soul’ makes the conventions of early 60’s pop harmony and guitar riffs malleable, pacifying them with a powerful sense of nostalgia and drawing listeners into a more experimental realm of lamenting, soulful love songs.