With Sgt. Pepper’s, the Beatles invented the rock album: What it might sound like, what sort of artwork might accompany it, how it might look displayed on the shelf. It was a wildly audacious gambit for a group of kids, and just 18 months later, with The Beatles, they shattered their own idea completely, with an object so heavy and unyielding the shelf collapsed.
The idea of a smartly sequenced, tightly stitched suite of songs goes out the window: What we hear on the White Album, as it’s now universally called, is an assembly line of products with no operator. You can stare at the tantalizingly blank sleeve until you go snow-blind, trying to decode it. Nothing about it makes any kind of sense, and you will never meet a living soul who insists all the songs on it are worth keeping, nor will you find two people who agree on which songs to cut. The only real story binding its four sides occurs offstage, in the Beatles’ soap opera of creative differences; in band mythology, this was the moment the ship sailed irreversibly towards the iceberg, with three squabbling creative forces bent on wresting the wheel from one another. But cocooned inside the music, we don’t hear the bickering.
As a result, the White Album is entirely what you make of it. The wild tonal variants, the hairpin turns from mocking and specious (“Glass Onion,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.”) to nakedly emotional (“Blackbird,” “Julia,” “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”) to scabrous and ugly (“Yer Blues,” “Helter Skelter”)—we draw our own maps. Generations of songwriters have taken one or more of its dead-end roads and hacked a new subgenre out of the brush, from Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk to the Clash’s London Calling to Elliott Smith’s XO. To record your White Album is to make something that tugs and bursts at its own seams. To listen to your White Album is to never reach the same set of conclusions. –Jayson Greene / Pitchfork.com