Culture Magazine

The Beatles' 'White Album' Has Turned 50

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
and Jordan Orlando writes about it in The New Yorker (10 November 2018).
“The Beatles” is as much a concept album as “Sgt. Pepper,” and the concept is, again, right in the title: a top-to-bottom reinvention of the band as pure abstraction, the two discs, like stone tablets, delivering a new order. (“By packaging 30 new songs in a plain white jacket, so sparsely decorated as to suggest censorship,” Richard Goldstein wrote in his New York Times review, “the Beatles ask us to drop our preconceptions about their ‘evolution’ and to hark back.”) The songs progress through a spectral, mystical, and romantic dimension, the soundscape itself becoming fluid and associative. The Beatles’ ability to conjure orchestras and horns and sound effects and choirs out of thin air imbues the tracks with a dream logic. The juxtaposition of order and disorder, of the ragged and the smooth, of the sublime and the mundane, of the meticulously arranged and the carelessly misplayed, provides what the critic John Harris called “the sense of a world moving beyond rational explanation.” The music seemed to absorb the panic and violence of 1968, the “year of the barricades.” As the Sunday Times critic commented, “Musically, there is beauty, horror, surprise, chaos, order; and that is the world, and that is what the Beatles are on about: created by, creating for, their age.”
The end:
As with 1968’s other impenetrable conversation piece, Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” the White Album skates off the edge of reality and into the abyss with “Revolution 9,” a Fluxus-inspired montage, beginning with a recording engineer testing the studio’s No. 9 input and ending with what Charles Manson admiringly described as “the sounds of the end of the world.” Only when that nightmare is consummated, closing in screams and roaring flame, can the album’s initial globalism return. Accompanied by George Martin’s orchestra, Ringo’s sweet delivery of Lennon’s final lullaby ends with a whispered “good night” to “everybody, everywhere,” the Beatles apparently floating over the Earth like Kubrick’s “2001” Star Child returned from his journey “beyond the infinite,” or like Apollo 8’s Frank Borman, who, six weeks later, read a Christmas prayer from orbit, prompting one grateful woman to send NASA a telegram to tell Borman that he “saved 1968.”
The remixing and remastering of this new anniversary edition illustrate how constrained the Beatles were by the nineteen-sixties technology that limited the recordings to eight or even four tracks, which had to be “mixed down,” losing clarity each time, in order to add more music. Rebuilt digitally, the album’s enormous soundscape is finally complete: the progressive generational muddiness is gone, revealing the dry snap of Ringo’s snare and Harrison’s full-throated gentle weeping and the thunderous effervescence of McCartney’s bass runs and Lennon’s halting intakes of breath. We can fully hear, at last, what they were trying to do. The formal, holistic creation is complete—unavoidable razor-blade splices and editing errors (exposed by earlier CD editions) are now gone, replaced by the smooth, clean bite of the digital transfers, a final “stripping away” that elevates the material to the Platonic form for which it was conceived.

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