At last it’s here, beautifully-packaged with symbolic hand-print covers and the dedication, “All Glories to Sri Krsna.” Even if Living in the Material World were as trivial and regressive as McCartney’s Red Rose Speedway, there would be many who would dub it a pop classic. Happily, the album is not just a commercial event, it is the most concise, universally conceived work by a former Beatle since John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band.
Given everything George Harrison represents, it would be virtually impossible for one to try to separate the man, the myth and the music, and undertake an in vitro analysis of Living in the Material World. Suffice it to say that these three aspects blend harmoniously into a single creation that is vastly appealing and in places very moving. Harrison inherited the most precious Beatle legacy — the spiritual aura that the group accumulated, beginning with the White Album — and has maintained its inviolability with remarkable grace. In Living in the Material World, that legacy, which Harrison reformulated diffusely in All Things Must Pass, is formalized once and for all.
The aesthetic key to Living does not reside in Harrison’s pretty melodies or generalized lyrics but in the entire production, whose cumulative impact is far greater than the sum of its parts. In presenting a sweetly simple vision of semi-ascetic spiritual enlightenment, Harrison invokes the basic attraction of popular religion through the most traditional of means — by being inspirationally, opulently, romantic. To this end, Harrison as producer has learned well from master inspirator Phil Spector, whose Wagnerian wall-of-sound approach to pop Harrison employs lavishly.
Schematically, Living in the Material World is a pop religious ceremony for all seasons, one in which Harrison acts as priest, deliberately placing his gifts and his legend into public service for God. And it’s almost needless to say that the spiritual/material anomaly is a one-sided affair. All but two of the album’s 11 cuts carry messages of spiritual commitment with such insistency that a close listening from start to finish is roughly equivalent to participating in a mass spectacle of religious re-dedication — one that does not end with rousing anthems but in heavenly choirs. (In addition, he has donated the proceeds from those nine songs to charities reflective of their concerns.)
The album opens brilliantly with the hit single, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth),” a strong, short-phrased melody whose lyrics are sheer exhortation with an “Om” chorus. It’s every bit as good as “My Sweet Lord.” “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” is a biting slide-guitar showcase for Harrison, its lyric a clever Lennonist diatribe against such monetary quarrels as those that ended the Beatles: “Bring your lawyer/And I’ll bring mine/Get together, and we could have a bad time.” “The Light That Has Lighted the World” seems an oblique defense against public criticism and expectations of a Beatle reunion. Except for its sustained instrumental break featuring Harrison and Nicky Hopkins, it is pretty leaden stuff. But then we’re back in the groove with a gorgeous, rollicking love song, “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long.” Exuberance is succeeded by passionate testament in “Who Can See It,” a beautiful ballad whose ascendant long-line melody is the most distinguished of the album. Side one closes with the title cut, an incantatory, polyrhythmic rocker with a falsetto-on-sitar refrain. Though the music is some of the most complex on the album, the lyrics, like the album’s graphics, imposes the simplest of juxtapositions: Harrison’s “material” history (encompassing the Beatles) against spiritual meditation.
Side two opens with a compelling gospel-flavored rocker, “The Lord Loves the One,” a stunning achievement that carries the authority of pop scripture; “The Lord loves the one that loves the Lord/And the law says if you don’t give, then you don’t get loving.” I hope that Aretha Franklin gets her hands on it, and soon. “Be Here Now,” is a meltingly lovely meditation-prayer, the ultimate aural refinement of “Blue Jay Way.” The last three cuts — “Try Some Buy Some,” “The Day the World Gets ‘Round,” and “That Is All” — while appropriately rounding out the song cycle, also attempt to intensify the already fervid romanticism through expanded production (violins, hidden chorus, etc.) and through deliberate use of instrumental hooks from “Isn’t It a Pity” and “Across The Universe.”
“Try Some” (the only cut co-produced by Phil Spector) is an overblown attempt to restate the spiritual message in material terms: “Won’t you try some/Baby won’t you buy some.” “The Day the World Gets ‘Round” and “That Is All” are two devotional prayers whose solemn mantra-influenced melodies are barely able to sustain their lush orchestration. Yet they do, so that at the end we are left suspended in ethereality, as Harrison concludes with his own prayer, a sort of Hindu In Paradisium:.
Silence often says much more
Than trying to say what’s been said before.
But that is all I want to do
To give my love to
That is all I’m living for,
Please let me love you more — and that is all.
In its special way, Living in the Material World is as personal and confessional a work as the first John Lennon album, though it is not nearly so intellectually provocative. Despite the occasional use of “psychedelic puns,” Harrison’s lyrics are so guileless they convey an extraordinary sincerity that transcends questions of craftsmanship. Similarly, the devotions we are called upon to share with Harrison, though they communicate no specific, private torment, do have the authenticity of overheard prayers and are therefore sacred. Of course, Harrison’s plaintive vocals and gently weeping guitar contribute immeasurably to this impression. Living in the Material World is a profoundly seductive record. Harrison’s rapt dedication infuses his musicality so completely that the album stands alone as an article of faith, miraculous in its radiance.