As the first album released by an ex-Beatle since the nightmare of last December 8th. Somewhere in England will be eagerly received — and given the benefit of every doubt — by fans desperate for consolation and reassurance that at least some of the Beatles magic has survived John Lennon. Such sentiments have been further intensified by the inclusion of George Harrison’s elegy to his former partner, “All Those Years Ago,” whose appearance as a single was elevated to the status of a media event when it was revealed that Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr had participated in the recording.
“All Those Years Ago” epitomizes both the positive and negative aspects of the new LP as a whole, and of Harrison’s work in general. One was prepared to be deeply moved. The song’s lyrics. which the first newspaper reports printed in full, certainly ring true on paper: “And you were the one they backed up to the wall/All those years ago/You were the one who imagined it all.” Studded with hooks, the melody and arrangement are strong. Indeed, “All Those Years Ago” is downright infectious!
This might have seemed a welcome change of pace for a man formerly accused of writing mainly dirges — except that here the subject matter obviously calls for a dirge, something somber and stirring along the lines of “Isn’t It a Pity?” or “All Things Must Pass.” The words just don’t fit the music.
A similar incompatibility extends to Harrison’s phrasing. Throughout Somewhere in England, he’s apt to throttle an attractive melody with mouthfuls of excess verbiage or stretch a word several syllables out of recognition to meet the demands of a tune. A really good lyricist would summon phrases that flow naturally with the music, would find a way to use the word “hon-est-y” without rendering it as “hon-est-ee-ee-ee.”
“All Those Years Ago,” in any case, isn’t quite the “reunion” the tabloids cracked it up to be. Ringo Starr has revealed that the basic instrumental track, including his drumming, was taped before John Lennon’s murder for eventual use on an upcoming Starr project. But instead, Harrison elected to do his own Lennon tribute, complete with scarcely audible Paul and Linda McCartney harmonies. (The George Harrison story is riddled with episodes like this. Living in the Material World‘s “Try Some, Buy Some,” for instance, was first concocted for Ronnie Spector. When her Apple single bombed, Harrison simply erased her voice and overdubbed his own.)
Somewhere in England was actually slated for release in October, 1980. Warner Bros., however, deemed the disc “too laid back” for today’s market and insisted that Harrison add some “oomphpapa.” That, at any rate, is how the artist describes the wrangle in the revised album’s opening salvo, “Blood from a Clone” (which, along with “All Those Years Ago,” “Teardrops” and “That Which I Have Lost,” replaced the originally slated “Tears of the World,” “Sat Singing,” “Flying Hour” and “Lay His Head”). Because of “the nit-picking,” Harrison claims, “I almost quit kicking at the wall.” Utilizing the tradition of such brusque commentaries as “Taxman,” “Sue Me Sue You Blues” and “This Song,” he now rails against “the illusion/That [record companies] know just what will suit you all” and lashes out against the “mundane” and “awful noises” that receive promotion and airplay these days. Yet instead of drawing blood by making the point with a sharp musical parody, “Blood from a Clone” offers only tired riffs and the overall sound of undistinguished product.
“Unconsciousness Rules,” with its early-Sixties melody and horn arrangement, packs considerably more “oomph-papa.” In this cautionary tale of life in the material world, the singer’s example of a slave to earthly desires is a disco habitué.
After having written off the broad spectrum of contemporary-music lovers, Harrison gets down to serious business. Despite his vow (with the release of 1979’s George Harrison) to stop “push[ing] ‘My Sweet Lord’ down people’s throats too much,” “Life Itself” is an explicit paean to “the One” in all His guises: “Christ, Vsnu, Buddha, Jehovah,” etc. With beautifully filigreed overdubs of breathy, echoing voices and poignant slide-guitar figures — the artist’s most successful trademarks — the music conjures up a magical temple of mirrors.
For such efforts as these, George Harrison has been called a preachy bore and “the musical equivalent of horse tranquilizer” (that from the editor of a Beatles fanzine!). But to me, Harrison has achieved the supreme gift of communicating, through the abstract medium of music (the words are secondary), a vision of the spiritual world he’s glimpsed in his mystical explorations. Side two’s “Writing’s on the Wall,” which makes discreet use of Indian instruments, is very nearly as gorgeous and haunting as “Life Itself,” and a far more imaginative exercise in raga-rock than anything Harrison ever managed as a Beatle. Though many people may be unwilling or unable to share George Harrison’s spiritual vision, his sincerity (at least in certain numbers) is beyond dispute, and the sound he creates is distinctly his own.
Somewhere in England runs the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous. Most incongruous of all are two compositions by Hoagy Carmichael, who was penning hits on Tin Pan Alley before Hari Georgeson’s present incarnation even got under way. In his book, I Me Mine, Harrison recalls having been turned on to music at the age of four by “Hong Kong Blues,” which is presumably why it, along with “Baltimore Oriole,” is included here. The fact that Harrison’s voice is as unsuited to carrying this kind of tune as that of Ringo Starr (who demolished Carmichael’s “Stardust” on Sentimental Journey) apparently never occurred to him.
Leave it to George Harrison to conclude Somewhere in England with a daunting exhortation called “Save the World.” Veering uncertainly between whimsy and dour warnings, the song ultimately fails either to galvanize or amuse.
Social commentary and ironic wit clearly remain outside the scope of Harrison’s very real talents, as does the ability to belt out a convincing rocker. “Life Itself” sums up what he does best and — judging from the care he lavishes on it — what he loves best. The most paradoxical of the ex-Beatles, George Harrison is an enigmatic mixture of exquisite craftsmanship and heavy-handed hack work, touching sincerity and plain disingenuousness. As it stands, Somewhere in England is neither here nor there.