The Beatles: Eleanor Rigby & Cellar Door

January 3rd, 2011 Posted by david brothers

The Damon Albarn Appreciation Society is an ongoing series of observations, conversations, and thoughts about music. Here’s the first:

I’ve been learning The Beatles lately. I’m fairly unfamiliar with them, with only a passing knowledge of their catalog. I know “Come together! Right now! Over me!” from a pickup truck commercial (and it was probably the Aerosmith version), I believe, and bits from movies or karaoke. I started with Revolver, because that’s what people said was their best album, and listened to it about ten times over Christmas weekend.

What’s most surprising, I think, is how infinitely singable this record is. Something about a song like “Eleanor Rigby” demands that you sing along. It’s compelling, but not in terms of content. The lyrics and vocals aren’t that complicated, is what it is. They’re simple, especially when compared to the diva’d up songs (word to 0:40-1:00, can I get an amen?) that I usually need to sing along to. It’s pop, in the purest meaning of the word. It’s popular and appropriate for a mass audience. Paul McCartney’s singing voice is conversational, almost, and a little bit haunting. It’s a sad song, but a catchy one.

What’s more is what I tend to think of as the focal point of the song, the phrase “Eleanor Rigby,” is incredibly pleasing to the ear. It sits alone in the verse, separated from the rest of its line by a beat, and really draws my attention. Something about the name puts me in mind of the phrase “cellar door.” It’s intensely musical in and of itself and regardless of what it actually means. “El-ea-nor-rig-by” has a specific rhythm and a pleasing sound, even when spoken in plain language. The Rs flow into each other. “Father McKenzie” isn’t quite as musical, I think due to the hard K sounds in the last segment, but it still works after being setup by “Eleanor Rigby.”

(This ties into the rhythm, as well. Biggie’s “Super Nin-ten-do Sega Genesis” has much the same effect. It’s like hypnosis.)

My mental impression of “Eleanor Rigby,” the song, is partly abstracted. It’s a loose collection of pleasant sounds (“I look at all the lonely people” and then “Eleanor Rigby”) followed by coherent lyrics, and then bookended with more pleasing sounds. And you can’t not sing along with it for that very reason. It sounds good, a kind of good that demands homage. It works, and works hard.

There are a few other songs on the album I have this reaction to, though none as strong as “Eleanor Rigby.” “Taxman” is quite good, and I like the harmony (harmonial?) aspects of it (“Yeaaaaahyeah, I’m the Taxmaaaan,” “Ah-ah, Mis-ter Willll-son,” and that crazy verse from 0:55-1:12) and the way their accent alters the pronunciation of certain common words (“Don’t ask me what I want it for/if you don’t want to pay some more,” the “small/all” rhyme prior to that) makes for a very enjoyable tune. “She Said She Said” has a couple of great bits (“No no no you’re wrong” rising into “when I was a boy” before that line fades back to normal), too. “Good Day Sunshine” has the kind of chorus that I think of as superhero music. It feels like it’s rising, and is vibrant and catchy.

(I liked “I’m Only Sleeping” because it reminds me of Mark 5:22-43: “He went inside. Then he said to them, ‘Why all this confusion and sobbing? The child is not dead. She is only sleeping.'” It’s a facile connection, but a deep one that I can’t quite put out of my mind.)

This isn’t a new way to look at music for me. But it’s interesting that the songs on Revolver hit me like they did. My only other Britpop touchstone is Blur, which I do like to sing to. Do I like Blur and The Beatles for the same reasons? I’ve listened to Rubber Soul eight or nine times at this point, and I had a similar reaction to “Drive My Car,” which feels like a pounding Aretha Franklin joint and is super funky, and “Norwegian Wood,” which sounds like what I imagined Beatles songs sounded like before I started listening to them. “I once had a girl. Or should I say, she once had me.”

Long story short, though, I ordered The Beatles: Rock Band, even though it only has three joints from Revolver.

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