George Harrison was always known as “the quiet Beatle.” You had John, the outspoken, brash, social commentating wise-guy; Paul was the cute one, the one with the cherub cheeks and the delicious understanding of pop melodies; Ringo was the drummer, a nice guy, the one with the big nose; George was the quiet one. He was the weird one, the one who dabbled in Eastern music and Eastern philosophy. A hell of a guitar player. John and Paul would occasionally toss him a bone and let him have a song or two per album, but that was about it.
You could see towards the end of the Beatles’ career that George was starting to come into himself as a songwriter. His two contributions to Abbey Road, “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun,” are among the most-loved and best songs of the entire Beatles catalog. There were hints that George had more, much more, to say, and only needed the space and the opportunity to say it.
Well, he got the chance on All Things Must Pass, a triple-album chock-full of all the pent-up frustration George felt in those closing years with the Beatles. And damn if it didn’t make for some of the absolute best music ever.
The CD reissue of George’s opus retains all the original stuff from those three records, plus it throws in a handful of demo cuts and a new recording of one of the album’s key tracks, “My Sweet Lord.” And thanks to CD technology, you get it all on a very managable two CDs rather than three cumbersome vinyl records (though there is something to be said for the old records…I mean, c’mon, this stuff is what vinyl was made for).
To be blunt, there’s really not a bad cut on this set. The jams that made up the third record (the last about four or five tracks on disc 2 of the CD collection) are a little unnecessary, but you do get a sneak peak at the creation of one of the best groups ever, Derek and the Dominoes (the future members of that band all appear on this record, and all are involved in the jams. You kinda get a feeling for the direction Derek and the Dominoes would later take, which is neat). But the rest of the album is top-notch, proving that George could be every bit as inspired and prolific as Lennon and McCartney.
First, the music–George utilized Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” technique in recording this album, which means everything sounds big and full and lush. George brought in more musicians than you can shake a stick at (most of whom went uncredited, though some–like Eric Clapton–went uncredited due to record label issues). There are several tracks where you have a half dozen different guitars being played all at once, and each one is strumming a slightly different pattern, and it all just fits together. This record sounds big, sounds like it’s making a statement, and that’s exactly what it does.
Every song on here is good, which is impressive not only for an album of this size and scope, but for a solo project (though the inclusion of two different versions of “Isn’t it a Pity” seems a little unnecessary. Admittedly, it’s a great song with a beautiful melody, and the two different versions have enough variation that you don’t mind hearing it twice, so it’s okay). Most of these are originals (with the exception of a smooth cover of Bob Dylan’s “If Not for You,” a song which George helped Dylan come up with anyway, and the opener, “I’d Have You Anytime,” co-written by Dylan and Harrison), and Harrison makes some remarkable statements about himself, his history, the world in general, and life and death. These are heavy themes, but Harrison treats them with a stately dignity, and the songs never feel heavy handed or preachy (problems which some later Harrison songs would suffer from).
Lyrically, Harrison is in fine form here. “My Sweet Lord” is a beautiful meditation on the singer’s desire to know the nature of God; “Apple Scruffs” is an endearing tribute to a group of dedicated Beatles fans; “What is Life” is a rolicking, chugging love song with a punchy horn section; “Isn’t it a Pity” is a beautiful plea for peace, love, and understanding; and the title track is one of the deepest, most meaningful songs ever written.
That song, “All Things Must Pass,” is laden with meaning. On one level, it’s about the demise of the Beatles. On another, it’s about the end of a relationship. On yet another, it’s about life, death, and the transitory nature of reality. But Harrison never treats this passing as a negative thing. All things, he says, must pass; that is the nature of life. “Sunrise doesn’t last all morning,” he sings, but just as the good will pass, so will the bad: “Darkness only stays the nighttime,” and “It’s not always going to be this grey.” This is the ultimate song of hope: Harrison knows that nothing is here to stay, and that gives him a strange sense of comfort, because it means the chaos doesn’t last forever, either. It’s a beautiful, bittersweet notion that Harrison conveys in one of his most achingly beautiful melodies, a slow, strummed acoustic guitar setting the pace, and layers of guitar (slide and acoustic) and a subdued horn section only drive the point home.
One of the key features of the album is Harrison’s fascination with Eastern philosophy and religion. Several of the songs have religious elements or themes, whether it’s the prayer of “My Sweet Lord,” coming to terms with “The Art of Dying,” or “Chanting the Name of the Lord,” who is awaiting on us all (in “The Lord is Awaiting on You All,” of course). Harrison is nigh obsessed with the notion of God, deity, and the divine, and his own particular spirituality permeates every aspect of this album.
The CD reissue adds four new tracks–demo versions of “Beware of Darkness” and “Let it Down,” an alternate instrumental version of “What is Life,” and a new version of “My Sweet Lord” dubbed “My Sweet Lord (2000).” The two demos are excellent. “Beware of Darkness” almost has more impact in the simple acoustic guitar setting of the demo than in the final version, and “Let it Down” is more harrowing without the horns and backup singers. The instrumental of “What is Life” is interesting for the variation on the horn part from the original, and it makes for a fun karaoke verison to sing along to in the shower. The new “My Sweet Lord” featuers some breathtaking slide guitar work from George and a slightly varied arrangement and instrumentation, but the effect is rather ruined by the backup singer and Harrison’s own rather ragged vocal performance.
All Things Must Pass is one of the best rock albums of all time, hands down. None of the other former Beatles released anything like it upon the band’s initial breakup. It rivals McCartney’s Band on the Run and Lennon’s Imagine as the best ex-Beatle solo album, and for good reason. George may have been the quiet Beatle, but that was only because he was saving up all his words for this record.