George Harrison – Living in the Material World (1973)

History: After the huge success of All Things Must Pass, George shifted his focus into organizing the charity concert event for Bangladesh after Ravi Shankar brought to his attention the troubles that were affecting the area at the time. Beyond the two shows there was also an album and documentary released for the efforts. After that George took some time off, a conflicting period that was equal parts mediation and spirituality as it was cocaine use and reckless driving in sports cars. After a long holiday alone, he returned to start recording his follow up album with a core set of musicians including Klaus Voormann and Ringo to create what would become Living in the Material World.

My own personal history and initial prediction: The only song on the tracklist that I can vaguely remember is “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)” but if you asked me to sing it I’d fumble past the title of it. I feel like I probably also heard the title track at some point as well, or at least it seems likely that it was played at some point during the Scorsese directed documentary of the same name, but I can’t really recall it. It’s worth noting that I do own a copy of The Concert for Bangladesh that originally belonged to my dad, but I don’t know if I ever listened to it all the way through. I went ahead and peeked to see if Phil Spector was also producing this one, and it looks like he only worked on one song, so I’m hopeful that this one will be all the good of All Things Must Pass without that muddy bad side of it.

Review: This album is definitely a lot slicker and cleaner than All Things Must Pass. There’s some lush orchestration at parts, but it feels full and rich and not even remotely muddy. I was also a little surprised to find how mellow most of it is. The album is primarily ballads rather than rocking tunes, though of course George’s slide guitar is present for most of them. It’s also a super introspective and contemplative album, talking very openly about his spirituality and his conflicts with the material side of things. There’s also some Beatles fallout commentary as you might expect.

The most obvious of those is “Sue Me, Sue You Blues” which is sadly no where near as bluesy as I would hope it to be based on the title. Lyrically it’s a bit repetitive but that does fit the nature of what he’s talking about, the never ending cycle of fights they were all having at the time. “Who Can See It” is also apparently meant to be a dig at John and Paul for not recognizing his talents, though I think the song holds up well as just a comment on giving your love and attention to those who appreciate you and not worrying about others. There’s a more fun Beatles mention in “Living in the Material World” where he calls each of them by name and after mentioning “Richie” there’s a drum fill that has to be Ringo’s. That song is an overall good expression of his struggles, the cost and allure of fame in the material world balancing against his desire to truly connect with the spiritual side of things. I love that the music changes to Indian when he discusses the spiritual world, and returns to more modern rock styles as he discusses the physical. Though there is an organ present in the rock sections that reminded me very much of gospel sounds, suggesting that even while he’s here he’s still trying to be true to his spirituality.

Those struggles, as well as a desire to believe in the goodness we can achieve while also being frustrated when others don’t seem to be acting that way, are really the main theme of the album. There are two songs that don’t fit that formula as easily, “Try Some Buy Some” about his drug use and “Don’t Let Me Wait Too Long” which at least on the surface sounds like a more traditional love song. But I also think it’s vague enough that he could also be speaking to God, a plea to feel some connection with him sooner rather than waiting until he dies. I was really struck by just how deeply he seems to be expressing himself and his faith. On “The Light That Has Lighted The World” it almost sounded to me like he could have actually been breaking down while singing. This isn’t the same thing as John getting incredibly specific and raw on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, but I do think it’s the most personal we’ve ever seen George do up to this point for sure.

I was also really struck by “Be Here Now” as it feels like a song designed specifically for you to listen to while meditating. He seems to be using western instruments with the same techniques he applied to his Indian songs before, and I really like the results. On the other hand there is “The Day the World Gets ‘Round” which is interesting in that it’s talking about concepts very similar to “Imagine” but doing so in a much more pessimistic way. A sort of “I really hope we’re going to get there some day but I have a hard time believing it” that is certainly something we can all relate to but isn’t going to help the cause with that much negativity.

With so much of the album sounding the same, I could see this becoming a little tedious unless you’re very much in the specific mood to listen to this kind of sound. I imagine some might also be disappointed by the fact that this doesn’t emphasis guitar as much as his past work, but I think it’s great to hear him doing something a little more varied than what we’ve heard in the past. This isn’t an album I plan to put into my regular rotation going forward, but I could definitely see it being the perfect thing to listen to on a rainy day.

Singles released around this time:

“Bangla Desh” – It seems like if you’re going to ask people for help, you should probably take at least a little time to understand exactly what the problem is so you can explain why you need their help? That said the song is catchy as it is, and if the purpose is to create a catchy single that will encourage people to buy it and you send the proceeds to aid, maybe that is all you need.

“Deep Blue” – I like the beat of this one. Reminds me of “For You Blue” in a lot of ways. Simple, but that’s perfect for a B side like this.

“Miss O’Dell” – Am I listening to an outtake version of this or does he really just start laughing in the middle of the second verse when he messes up the words? Apparently that is just how it goes. That silliness makes me think of listening to the Beatles Anthology all the time. The song also has a fun little beat to it beyond that.

Next Time: John returns with Mind Games.

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