Year in and year out, when it was hip and when it seemed quaintly corny, George Harrison wrote humble songs about tending the soul.
In lyrics piled with Eastern imagery and religious metaphor, he encouraged the pop audience he earned as a Beatle to engage the mystic and become open to the possibility hiding behind the clouds. He was reverent and graceful, and a little kooky in his zeal. But his was pop of deep idealism, and he used his guitar and considerable melodic gifts to sketch out blissful utopias where kindness reigned and consciousness was ever-expanding.
And then George Harrison got sick, first with throat cancer, then with lung cancer. He died last November, at 58, three years after his initial diagnosis.
Harrison continued to record during much of his illness, and the surprisingly vital Brainwashed, the CD completed by his old friend Jeff Lynne and his only son, Dhani, that comes out Nov. 19, offers frank, often conflicting answers to the questions that evidently occupied his thoughts. What happens to the lofty notion of spirituality when there’s not much time left? What really matters? What does it mean to be devoted?
The album’s 11 originals (there’s also a cheeky take on the standard “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea”) freeze the moments when Harrison’s ideas about death and life and a merciful deity underwent serious revision. Rather than smile beatifically, he railed and let loose a caustic wit he usually kept under wraps. He sang aching love songs, including “Stuck Inside a Cloud,” which turns on the line “Talking to myself, crying as we part/Knowing as you leave me, I also lose my heart.”
He observed his changed attitude in the chorus of the gripping “Looking for My Life”: “I never knew that life was loaded. I only hung around birds and bees. I never knew that things exploded. I only found it out when I was down upon my knees, looking for my life.”
Brainwashed can be seen as a last reckoning in which Harrison sheds abstractions to confront, with a no-time-for-small-talk honesty, his pestering inner stuff. He doesn’t disavow the idealism that informed earlier works; he simply acknowledges that it can obscure uncomfortable truths. He wants resolution, but also full disclosure.
There are songs that deride Catholicism, the church of his youth, and the brainwashing that leaves people “programmed into guilt.” There are songs that urge abandoning cherished illusions. There’s a blues with lessons for the materialistic: “If you’re frightened of losing what you like a lot, you may be cruisin’ backwards while thinking that you’re not.”
As on all Harrison’s classic work, from “Something” to “All Things Must Pass” to the freewheeling music of the Traveling Wilburys, his existential rhetoric is enhanced – ennobled, really – by the featherweight texture of the surrounding music. Those who groaned when Lynne, of the ornate Electric Light Orchestra, was announced as a producer will be surprised by the results.
Though it has backing vocals and studio “sweetening,” most of Brainwashed is uncluttered, preserving the urgency Harrison brought to what he knew would be his final project. Harrison knew that his koanlike songs would collapse under too much orchestration: He left instructions to preserve the demo-like feel of the tracks, so they wouldn’t become “too posh.” The result is pop that’s beautiful and purposeful and hauntingly spare, well-suited to the message of the songs.
Though it’s clear Harrison was immersed in the sad business of settling accounts and getting right with a higher power, in “Rising Sun,” he sings “Every word you’ve uttered and every thought you’ve had, it’s all inside your file, the good and the bad,” Brainwashed is anything but dire. Its songs have a life-affirming, seize-the-beauty lust. They’re celebrations as much as cautionary tales, deliberative and impulsive, blessed with the Grateful Dead’s easygoing demeanor and Dylan’s woebegone romanticism.
Despite the weighty themes, Brainwashed is really a guitar record, notable for its crisply strummed rambles and spiky ukulele chords, its animated leads and slide-guitar melodies that somehow emulate the gentle bend of a weeping willow. A master of understatement, Harrison knew when to let silence or one marrow-piercing note finish his thoughts, and there are times when his multi-tracked string parts coalesce into gorgeous chorales that give the sermons contemplative resonance.
And, as it turns out, Harrison didn’t need words at all: The raga-based “Marwa Blues” is three minutes of pealing guitar anguish that sheds a different light on Harrison’s last days. It begins with reflecting pool calm. The guitar climbs methodically higher and the intensity grows, and soon we’re deep into what could be an endless journey, bound for the state of meditative bliss that’s just around the corner, and forever out of reach.