George Harrison was the youngest and quietest Beatle. He was also the first to write a song about what a drag it was to be a Beatle: “Don’t Bother Me,” for the 1963 British LP With the Beatles. He never stopped writing about it. Harrison’s best music — “Within You Without You” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with the Beatles; his 1970 solo masterpiece All Things Must Pass; the 1987 comeback Cloud Nine — was a running account of his war for inner peace, a lifelong struggle to reconcile the mixed blessings of worldly fame with his consuming desire to reach a higher, purer state of grace.
When Harrison died of cancer on November 29th, 2001, he still did not have all the answers. “I’m a living proof of all life’s contradictions,” Harrison admits with a dash of mirth in his low, sandy voice in “Pisces Fish,” one of the eleven original songs on Brainwashed, his final studio album. “Lord, we got to fight/With the thoughts in the head, with the dark and the light,” he sings on the first track, “Any Road,” with zero irony. But as a songwriter and guitarist, Harrison never lost his gently intoxicating way of posing big questions about guilt and transcendence. If the lavishly orchestrated hymns on All Things Must Pass (“My Sweet Lord,” “What Is Life”) were Harrison’s idealization of life beyond material form, Brainwashed is a warm, frank goodbye, a remarkably poised record about the reality of dying, by a man on the verge. Fear and acceptance run together in these songs, anger as well as serenity. Most important, there are lots of guitars.
Harrison died before he could finish Brainwashed. But his co-producers — his son Dhani and ELO’s Jeff Lynne — have completed the album with impressive sensitivity, to the point that Harrison feels immensely present: strong and centered in his singing over the lazy rivers of strum, uncrowded by excess reverb or overstuffed choruses. Vocally, Harrison actually sounds younger and more engaged than he did in middle age on half-hearted LPs such as Dark Horse (1974) and Gone Troppo (1982). He puts real spring into the Zen lesson of “Any Road” — “If you don’t know where you’re going/Any road’ll take you there” — along with long, gleaming curls of slide guitar. And there is a plaintive wrench to his hindsight in “Looking for My Life” — “Oh, boys, you’ve no idea what I’ve been through” — especially when the background harmonies pull out and Harrison is alone and close to the mike.
It is fitting that one of the best songs on Brainwashed is an instrumental “Marwa Blues.” Harrison’s first recorded composition was “Cry for a Shadow,” a basic, magnetic guitar showcase co-written with John Lennon and cut by the Beatles in Hamburg in 1961. “Marwa Blues” is in that tradition: a cleansing waterfall of slide guitars. As the Beatles’ lead guitarist, Harrison made each note count for something, and it is true for all that he plays here, from the overlapping rings of electric guitar in “Run So Far” to the hula-blues dobro snaking through “Rocking Chair in Hawaii.” It is hard to tell what Harrison did not play on the album: Dhani and Lynne also play guitars. But the quivering tremolo in “Pisces Fish” and the stair-step jangle in “Any Road” reflect Harrison’s class and touch, regardless of who did the honors.
The luxuriant sound and reflective tone make it easy to mistake Brainwashed for mere homily, a recycling of sermons from mid-Seventies Harrison LPs such as Living in the Material World. In fact, he makes pointed allusion to his cancer and his sealed fate with both humor — the dry reference to “my concrete tuxedo” in “P2 Vatican Blues (Last Saturday Night)” — and, in “Looking for My Life,” candid shock: “Had no idea that I was heading/To a state of emergency.” Harrison had a streak of the preacher in him, too. “Brainwashed” ends the album on a hectoring note, a laundry list of social ills (Wall Street, the press, etc.) softened only by an old tape of Harrison performing an Indian chant with the later double-tracked voice of his son, a welcome coda of deliverance.
Brainwashed doesn’t tell us if Harrison ever got over being a Beatle. But there is little bitterness or regret in this music — mostly acceptance, anticipation and big twang. It is a fine, enchanting epitaph for a man who, to the end of life, believed rock & roll was heaven on earth.