The Beatles: Revolver
How did Dante Alighieri do the nearly impossible?
He wrote a poem that created an entire language, has been read and analyzed consistently for seven centuries, and produced work that was beloved by the common folk and scholars alike.Incidentally, the answer to how he did it also explains why Revolver is the second-greatest album, and the Beatles the best group of all time. I am an enormous Beatles fan, which is kind of shocking considering my general proclivities.
But how does The Divine Comedy explain the Beatles’ popularity, beyond being an awesome metaphor for their career?
The Divine Comedy operates on about four million important levels, but the most important is the dichotomy of High and Low. Dante made the unconventional decision to use the common Italian vernacular to tell his story, and furthermore he exploited the popular genre fiction of the day, most notably “St. Paul’s Vision of Hell,” as his subject. He uses the conventions of genre fiction and the common language of the day to explain extraordinarily difficult theological and philosophical concepts: divine favor, grace, man’s relationship to God, and the power of love. Think Paranormal Activity directed by Werner Herzog.
Revolver by the Beatles is much the same, musically and emotionally. They released it at the exact midpoint of their career, and it marks the moment they began to push for a grander musical scope. It is perhaps the only perfect melding of commercial pop and high art. You know how I know that (besides the absurd level of critical acclaim)?
Dante wrote a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven because he loved a woman so profoundly that he would literally traverse the universe to meet with her.
Because you never notice its higher artistic value when you’re listening. This album is thick with nuanced, deep, and dynamic songwriting. Whether it’s the full-blown string orchestra on “Eleanor Rigby;” the Hindustani riffage on “Love You To;” the straight precursor to hip-hop and alternative rock, “Tomorrow Never Knows;” or the reverse guitar solo that George Harrison learned in reverse on “I’m Only Sleeping,” this album has an incredibly varied musical and timbral palette. It never stays in one place musically or emotionally. Some tracks are funny like “Yellow Submarine,” some are heartrending like “For No One,” some are cheesy love songs like “Got To Get You into My Life,” and some are just beautiful, like “Here, There and Everywhere.” In all cases though, the level of variety and the level of musicianship is never overshadowed by the musical prerogative to entertain.
I love difficult music that hits hard, but the Beatles were the first band I gave a massive shit about. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that their music is so universally adored, or so ardently despised by very few. Their desire to transcend the tropes of pop music while understanding what people enjoy is what explains their music’s staying power. An average Joe, who doesn’t know what the fuck a perfect fifth is or what the shit counterpoint is and doesn’t want to, can enjoy the Beatles just as much as a guy who has devoted his entire life to Palestrina or Bach, who listens to Philip Glass or Steve Reich with an ear for augmentation and phrasing.
This creates a sense of timelessness. By grounding higher artistic ideals in recognizable emotional backing––love, loneliness, sleep, taxes, yellow submarines––no one is ever left out of the fun. Add the reasonable run time of 36 minutes and the beautiful production and you have what might arguably be the only truly perfect record.
Dante wrote a journey through Hell, Purgatory and Heaven because he loved a woman so profoundly that he would literally traverse the universe to meet with her. He composed a palace of words as a testament to his devotion and love, and he made sure that everyone understood it by making it accessible. He wrote The Divine Comedy for Beatrice.
And while the Beatles may not have had any particular person in mind when they wrote Revolver, they wanted to entertain people, but also entertain themselves, and they liked the weird shit. So it’s not too different.
This is the end of the beginning,
Until I turn off my mind, relax, and float downstream.