Sunday, July 26, 2015

The Beatles - Let It Be (1970)

(This is the fourth and last of a series of record reviews called "Shades of Mediocrity," a look at weak [but not necessarily bad] albums from esteemed artists.  You probably knew it was the last, because I always end a series of record reviews with a Beatles album.)
No Beatles album is farther removed from the original idea behind it than this one.  Let It Be started out simply enough - it was to be a live album of new songs recorded in the studio and/or before an audience, with no edits or overdubs, but it became a heavily edited, overdubbed, and overproduced collection of haphazard recordings with a few leftovers thrown in for good measure.  It was so complicated to put together, it took over a year and three producers - George Martin and Glyn Johns, who oversaw the original sessions, and Phil Spector, who "reproduced" Let It Be for disc - to bring it to fruition.  Sadly, though, Let It Be was also meant to revitalize the Beatles in the aftermath of the contentious White Album sessions and restore unity in the group.  Ironically, it only accelerated their breakup.
The Beatles attempted to reconnect with each other in January 1969 by working as a group rather than as four musicians who happened to record together, as sessions for The Beatles had turned out.  But the bad feelings festered, and rehearsals for the record were plagued by disagreements that carried over into their efforts to tape the LP in their studio at their Apple Corps company.  Many of the performances here are rote, with only sporadic inspiration - George Harrison's descending guitar solo on "I've Got a Feeling," Paul McCartney's somber piano on the title song - and some of the songs themselves are rather lackluster.  John Lennon's "Dig a Pony" is gobbledygook that doesn't even pretend to make sense, and George Harrison suggests disconnection from the blues in "For You Blue," a pleasant but inconsequential twelve-bar workout that's as safe as milk.  The lack of direction is even more apparent in Michael Lindsay-Hogg's accompanying documentary film, which shows the Beatles arguing with each other and vainly trying to keep the project - and the band - from falling apart.  The movie is actually more enjoyable than the LP, if only because it features a longer excerpt of their fun jam "Dig It" (cut to only fifty seconds on disc), a fifties rock and roll medley that wouldn't make it onto a record until the final installment in their mid-nineties Anthology series, and the spirited "rooftop session" in which the Beatles momentarily found their groove, for all the West End of London to hear.
The biggest complaint, as always, is with Phil Spector's reworking of the original tapes to make the LP that  finally got out in the spring of 1970.  Though he brought clarity to some of the tracks, he polished others to the point where the rough, rootsy feel is unrecognizable, and his orchestral overdub on Paul's "The Long and Winding Road" is melodramatic saccharine.  His overdubs and use of echo on John's "Across the Universe" and George's "I Me Mine" are to be commended, though, for bringing out the beauty in the former song and the urgency in the latter, but neither track was actually recorded during the January 1969 sessions; they were only included because the Beatles are seen rehearsing both in the film.  Also annoying is Spector's use of studio banter and false starts to keep the feel of the original "live" concept; such moments only distract attention from the songs and without any context.
You can't dismiss Let It Be entirely, however; as Mark Hertsgaard once noted, you have to take seriously an album that includes "Get Back" (the original title for the project, though the single release version is the superior one) and "Let It Be," not to mention the three aforementioned songs Spector overdubbed.  The Long and Winding Road," the Beatles' last American number-one single, is a lyrically solid song with an appealing melody that successfully withstands Spector's lavish orchestra, and "Let It Be" is a moment of greatness for Paul, a stirring ballad accentuated by a stinging guitar solo from George (different from his solo on the single release version).  But I cannot leave Billy Preston's stellar work go unnoticed.  Included on Let It Be to provide a fifth instrument, Preston anchors the band throughout with his vivid organ, from the regal solo on "Let It Be" to the funky middle eight on "Get Back" and his propelling undercurrent on "The One After 909," one of the "rooftop" cuts.
Let It Be may be the Beatles' weakest album, but because the group could still hold together long enough to see things through, it's still more listenable than the work of other groups at their best.  And yet there's a sense of resignation in it that couldn't be denied, least of all by the Beatles themselves.  They nonetheless accepted Let It Be as part and parcel of their history; to use modern argot, it was what it was.
And things would be what they would be.  When the group posthumously won the award for Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture or a Television Special for Let It Be at the 1971 Grammys, it was Paul McCartney - on the outs with the other three, and having disapproved of how Let It Be turned out - who accepted the award on the group's behalf from, of all people, John Wayne, with only a brief expression of gratitude.  In that one moment, Paul acknowledged that the Beatles, for better or for worse, would be his and the others' greatest legacy, even if the group was no more.  And they never did get back to where they once belonged. 
(My record reviews will hopefully return on August 23.)

No comments: