November 22, 2002

All Things Must Pass

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People, of course, can die — we all do, eventually — but legends cannot. John Lennon will never really die, not in the minds of all the music fans who have felt his influence, and neither will the Beatles. And neither will George Harrison. Often overlooked during his lifetime as the “quiet” Beatle, or if anything the weird religious Beatle, it’s only in death that his legacy is starting to be appreciated. Albums like his 1970 masterpiece All Things Must Pass (which has only recently been getting the heaps of praise and attention it’s always deserved) positioned him closer to the work of his friend Bob Dylan than to the solo careers of any of the other former Beatles. Harrison’s genuine, intimate performance on that record have stood the test of time nearly as well as the Beatles’ own catalogue, and when the dust finally clears on the group’s legacy some 50 or 60 years from now, it only seems fair that the most inconspicuous and humble Beatle will be standing tall with the best solo album.

After All Things Must Pass, Harrison delved deeper into commercial rock, never again quite reaching such heights. On his final album, Brainwashed (his first album of new original material since 1987’s Cloud Nine), however, George has once again returned to the folksy, personal style of his landmark record. Unfinished at the time of Harrison’s death last year, the legend’s son Dhani (who played guitar on the record) helped supervise its completion. Of course, it’s hard to listen to this album now without the specter of Harrison’s passing looming over it — without wondering how much of this product is George and how much is Dhani, in other words. There is a long history in rock music of commercial exploitation following an artist’s death, as with the endless (and increasingly mediocre) stream of Jeff Buckley’s demos that have followed his demise. Fortunately that doesn’t seem to be the case here.

In fact, if not for the history, it would be difficult to hear this as anything other than a normal Harrison album — and a striking return to form, thirty years later, at that. The mutual influence that Dylan and Harrison have had on each other is readily apparent on this disc. In many ways, the album feels like a companion piece to Dylan’s own latest effort, Love and Theft. Like that record, this is a bluesy, fiercely personal creation that tackles the very roots of the artist’s own music. Musically propulsive and often uptempo, Brainwashed is nonetheless lyrically depressing. The lyrics are by turns resigned, melancholy, accusatory, and enraged. This emotional tenor is reflected in the rich tone of Harrison’s voice, which betrays no trace of his sickness, but rather is at its most powerful and affecting.

The standout “Rising Sun” is the album’s clearest nod to Dylan. The evocative but vague lyrics (“in a room of mirrors you can see for miles/ but everything that’s there is in disguise”) are a perfect vehicle for the cracking, folk-inflected vocals. The opener “Any Road” is another blues-tinged rocker, propelled by Harrison’s rootsy banjuele plucking. Elsewhere, the meditative “Marwa Blues” is a dreamy instrumental led by George’s deft slide guitar; it’s strangely reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s The Division Bell.

Despite the heavy influence of blues and Dylan here, the album also nods to Harrison’s past without revisiting such corny sentiments as “When We Was Fab.” “(Can Only) Run So Far” is a lovely mid-tempo rocker that wouldn’t haven’t been out of place on the White Album, while the playful oddity “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is a Showtune-esque number that sounds like it might’ve been better suited for Ringo. And “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night)” is the kind of rollicking, raucous bar band rocker that Paul wishes he could write these days.

There’s a few throwaways here, too. “Never Get Over You” is an overdone, languid lovelorn ballad, bogged down in cheesy guitar overdubs and clich