I have to confess, the whole Love thing completely passed me by. I vaguely heard, four years ago or so, that Cirque du Soleil was doing some Beatles tribute show. Because I’ve never seen a Cirque show, and because my imagination has been stunted by television and video games, all I can picture is a bunch of guys in tights, swinging from trapezes, forming human pyramids, and so forth. To Beatles music. I yawn, and move on.
Then my friend Trrish made a special trip to Las Vegas to see the show, and told me a bit more about the way the music worked, and I was intrigued enough to pick up the album. And now that I’ve listened to it ten times in a row and had my mind completely BLOWN, I have to write about it, and I have to evangelize it to everybody I know who loves the Beatles. So I will gladly acknowledge the gooniness of gushing over an album 4 years after it comes out, just because it happened to take me that long to get around to it. It’s like writing a bunch of breathless blog posts about Buffy The Vampire Slayer in 2006, 3 years after it was cancelled. Which, y’know, I also did. So I guess this sort of thing is really my stock in trade nowadays.
If you’re way out of the loop like me, let me tell you a little about this album. It’s the soundtrack to the Cirque show, yes. But more importantly, it’s an exquisite, loving collage of Beatles sounds, made by people who have the music in their DNA: George Martin and his son Giles. They take the songs and pull apart their elements, mixing them together ingeniously, so that a solo from one song might float through the intro of another, fading smoothly into a third. Every sound on the record (with one exception, which I’ll discuss later) is from a Beatles recording. Sometimes the songs stand on their own for a while, sometimes the mixtures are subtle, and sometimes they jump out and grab you by the throat.
The sound is uniformly fantastic. I’ve never heard the songs sound better, even (or, perhaps, especially) when they’re not mixed up. Listening to this CD is an enormously thrilling experience if you have the music deeply engraved in your brain like I do. Seriously, if you love the Beatles, and you haven’t heard this album, stop reading right now, buy it, listen to it, and then come back. I’ll be here. You probably want to experience it fresh. I recommend headphones.
And just so you know, if you’re sensitive to this kind of thing in an album review: here be spoilers from this point forward.
From the first few seconds, the CD makes it clear that Beatles fans’ expectations are constantly going to be subverted. We hear the a capella voices of “Because”, singing the first “Aaaahhhhhhhhhhh,” then pausing. Then pausing some more. Then… the first lyric. That extra second or two of silence is like a loud announcement: these are not the Beatles’ songs as you know them. Those pauses break up each piece of the song, breaking apart the calcified structure of it that builds up in the mind after hundreds of listens. Then come the synths, except they don’t. It’s just more silence, and those gorgeous voices, alongside the birdsong and nature sounds from “Across The Universe.” The experience of not hearing what’s not there, except in your own mind where the memory orchestra can’t stop playing it, is like a stretching exercise to loosen your brain up for the rest of the record.
The song finishes. More silence. Then the long piano note from “A Day In The Life” played backwards so that it gathers force rather than fading away, mixing up with pieces of the crazy instrumental buildup from the middle of that same song, peaking with a smash-cut into the unforgettable opening chord from “A Hard Day’s Night”, which drops to Ringo’s drum solo from “The End”, which fits like a puzzle piece into the opening bass from “Get Back”. The chugging bass builds, with “The End”‘s dueling guitars overlaid, and when they finish, Paul begins to sing dead on cue: “Jo Jo was a man who thought he was a loner…” And at that point, if your brain isn’t sparking and buzzing, you either 1) don’t have The Beatles imprinted on your psyche, or 2) are enough of a purist that this mixup strikes you as an abomination. If you fall into the second group, go your way in peace and let the rest of us enjoy the magic. And it is magic. It’s like a magic trick that only works on people who know the Beatles music by heart. And the better you know the Beatles, the better the magic works.
In the first of many stellar segues, “Get Back” morphs into “Glass Onion” so smoothly that you don’t even know it’s happened for a moment. Bits of other songs float through, and the lyric picks up in the middle — “fixing a hole in the ocean” has a whole new resonance these days, by the way. The way these two songs meld into each other, it’s as if they were always meant to be together. That happens over and over again. If you were new to the music, you’d have no idea that “Being For The Benefit Of Mister Kite” just became “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”, or that the drumbeat from “Tomorrow Never Knows” wasn’t always behind “Within You Without You”, or that “Drive My Car”, “The Word”, and “What You’re Doing” were initially three different songs, because the way they’re mixed sounds so natural, so seamless, so perfect, that it begins to seem weird that they were ever recorded separately.
The effect of these intricate weavings, at least on me, is extraordinary. More than anything I’ve ever heard, Love captures what it feels like when I listen to music. My mind connects disparate songs, and when I listen to one thing, I sometimes hear echoes or something else. When I recall a song, those seamless segues happen all the time inside my skull, sometimes to the point where I can’t remember how the song really goes — all I know is the mix in my head. The connections on this record feel so right, it’s almost as if they sprang from the subconscious. If you listened to nothing but Beatles albums for a week and fell asleep, your dreams would sound like Love. I’ve had those sorts of dreams sometimes, and woke up wishing I could capture what I heard. I can’t believe that Giles and George were able to bring such a thing into the waking world. It’s astonishing to me.
As remarkable as all this is, it could have remained in the realm of really fun parlor tricks. But Love has more going on than that. It has stories to tell, sometimes very moving ones, and an incredible economy of storytelling. Consider: the gentle acoustic guitar of “Julia”, interrupted by a screaming siren from “Revolution #9”, and a clatter of sound that resolves itself into the heartsick, nauseous opening strings and piano of “I Am The Walrus.” If you don’t know the music well, you’d hear some guitar, some weird sound effects, and then a song you might recognize. If you know the music, you can recognize the origins of each sound. And if you know some of the Beatles’ backstories, you might recall that John’s mother Julia was killed when he was 17, struck by an off-duty policeman’s car, and that the incident fed into the anger and disgust that spills out of him in “I Am The Walrus.” (John also remarked that he wrote the “mister city policeman” lyric to the rhythm of a siren, and the King Lear clip in the background has a character saying “O untimely death!”) Once I understood what the mix was up to, the emotional power of it brought tears to my eyes.
Then from there we hear a weird, unearthly roar, and as an announcer’s voice enthuses, “Here they are: The Beatles!” it becomes clear that the roar is from the relentless, screaming hysteria that greeted the group everywhere they went during the height of Beatlemania. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” plays over that din, but never quite drowns it out, and when the song ends, the screaming doesn’t. It just goes on and on, implacable. Talk about a wall of sound. What must it have been like to have that roar in your ears, inescapable, over every concert and public appearance? With the mood already set by “I Am The Walrus,” the experience feels terrifying. The album gets bright and sunny again after that, but the point is made: if you are alert to its references, Love isn’t just mixing beats. It’s painting portraits of these men’s lives, with the deeply emotional palette available from their own work. It reminds me of the big payoffs available in continuity-heavy epics — everything you’ve learned is groundwork that enriches this experience.
Even when it’s not pursuing such a rich agenda, Love is a constant delight for a trivia fan like me. Trivia Mind shifts into high gear during the opening to “Get Back”, trying to name each tune in one note. There’s one particularly dizzying sequence in the middle of “Strawberry Fields” in which we hear solos from four different songs, each one blended expertly into the hypnotic drumbeat, finally transforming into the “Hello Goodbye” outro. My god it was fun naming those tunes.
Sometimes a mix alters the whole mood of a song, to intriguing effect. For instance, Ringo gets his moment in the sun with “Octopus’s Garden,” but the first verse of it plays slowed down, over the lullaby strings from “Good Night”. Suddenly the playful song sounds elegiac, poignant. Ship’s bells and ocean waves from “Yellow Submarine” provide the background noise, sounding lonely and isolated. Then, with a snare’s snap, the song regains its bounce, but not before we’ve been shown a greater emotional range than we’re accustomed to getting from Ringo.
Not only do we not hear the song we’re expecting due to changes in the mix, sometimes we don’t even hear the base track we know so well. The aforementioned “Strawberry Fields” starts out with the vocal from an acoustic demo, shifting (I think) at some point (I certainly can’t tell when) into the more familiar studio version. The vocal on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” is entirely different from the version on The White Album. It’s simpler, quieter, and has a whole new lyric, one quite appropriate to a Cirque du Soleil show conceived by George at age 57: “I look from the wings of the play you are staging / While my guitar gently weeps / As I’m sitting here doing nothing but aging / Still my guitar gently weeps.” This song also has the one piece of new music: an arrangement for strings written by that other George, George Martin. In the liner notes, Martin writes, “‘Yesterday’ was the first score I had written for a Beatle song way back in 1965 and this score, forty-one years later, is the last.”
“All You Need Is Love” ends the disc, and it remains fairly pristine, unmixed (until the end) with other songs. It fades out a little earlier than the original, and so just as with the beginning of the album, an element is conspicuous by its absence: we don’t hear Ringo singing, “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah” over the outro. And just as with the beginning of the album, because I didn’t hear it, I noticed it, and realized that yes, in fact, the fundamental song-mixing concept behind this project came from the same place as the rest of its incredible sounds and music: the creative genius of The Beatles.