I still can’t believe that George Harrison has been dead for 10 years. It seems like only yesterday we lost him. Of all The Beatles, I think George has the strongest, and more overlooked solo material. Paul and John always stole the limelight while they were together and in their solo careers they continued to overshadow poor George, which is a shame because he had a bunch of really sublime songs. His first solo record, the first solo record from any Beatle, ALL THINGS MUST PASS is stupendous work that is probably one of the finest rock albums of all time.
After his triumphant first release George put out a bunch of really strong, but mostly ignored records in the 1970’s and then slowed his output to only 3 records in the 1980’s. There were two awesome Traveling Wilbury records and 1987’s CLOUD NINE, the nothing. When George died in 2001 after a long battle with cancer, my first thought was a selfish one: no more George Harrison songs. Thankfully, George was hard at work on a new record right up till his death. He finished most of the recording and left detailed notes behind so that Jeffy Lynne and his son Dhani Harrison could finish the record.
Posthumous releases are, quiet frankly, pretty shitty normally. Think about it: you’re dying are you really going to do your best work? But amazingly BRAINWASHED turned out to not only be a good record, but one of George’s best. In fact, I’d say it’s nearly tied with ALL THINGS MUST PASSED. And the only reason ALL THINGS edges it out in my mind is because it’s a double album and thus, has more songs.
So what makes BRAINWASHED so good? For starters, the songwriting. Harrison learned songwriting from arguably the two greatest songwriters of all time so of course he was going to be able to write a good song. Besides being immediately accessible and catchy, the songs on BRAINWASHED all have a very down-to-earth feel. While not a concept album, the album’s songs all tend to be about assessing one’s life. That shouldn’t come as any big surprise considering that Harrison was knocking on death’s door. But whereas my death-album would be a series of pathetic screams of “Dear God not me!” George not only puts on a brave face, but appears beautifully serene in the face of his end. Entire books could be written about Harrison’s spirituality, and while I’ve heard many people question just exactly what he believed (and how strongly he believed it) there’s no arguing that whatever he let into his heart gave him a tremendous amount of strength and comfort. How do I know? It’s all here, persevered forever on BRAINWASHED.
The album opens with the playfully philosophical “Any Road” which points out that if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there. It’s a great song to open the album; its footloose and breezy attitude encourages the listen to embark on an adventure, any adventure. “Looking For My Life” is the first in a series of songs where George turns inward and examines his life. It’s a song about being through the wringer and separated from God but not really knowing it until things get rough. All of the problems raised by “Looking For My Life” are immediately answered in the very next song, “The Rising Sun.” Through spiritual re-birth and the actual re-birth of the day George found the answer to his problems. “The Rising Sun” is such a beautiful, hope-filled song I can’t believe it was penned by a man who knew he wouldn’t live to see many more sunrises. And don’t get me started on that slide guitar, has there ever been a more beautiful sound than George playing slide guitar? It’s Harrison’s signature guitar tone and on “The Rising Sun” in particular it’s used to great effect.
The album’s single, “Stuck Inside A Cloud,” is ironically the records biggest downer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great song, but it’s a depressing final single. “Stuck Inside A Cloud” seems to be about a lasting, incurable depression brought about (or perhaps causing?) a break-up. I think it might also be a metaphor for how disconnected we all are.
One of the most interesting songs, especially when I first heard BRAINWASHED was “Run So Far.” I had a strange bit of déjà vu where I was able to predict all the lyrics. I thought I was going insane until I was finally able to figure out where it was I’d heard the song before: Eric Clapton’s 1989 solo effort JOUNREYMAN. George wrote the song and gave it to his friend/wife-stealer and then waited a decade to record it himself. I must say, I like George’s version better, but only for the same reason I always prefer Dylan’s version of his songs: it’s always better to hear it from the author.
There’s a nice bit of whimsy near the end with a cover of “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” on which George plays the ukulele. I smile every time I hear this song, mostly because I know that had a very special place in George’s heart. He and John Lennon famously bonded over the ukulele. George’s choice in instrument adds a jaunty-nautical feel to the song. It’s probably my favorite version of this song.
The album concludes with “Brainwashed,” George’s final ode to God, whom he loved so dearly. Of all the songs on BRAINWASHED, “Brainwashed” feels the most like a Traveling Wilburys song. I’m not sure if it’s the songs humor (his grandma was brainwashed while working for the mob?) or the excessive Jeff Lynne production, but until the song transforms into the prayer “Namah Parvait” it could have easily fit on the Wilburys VOLUME 3.
George began his solo career with a phenomenal album and he thankfully was able to finish his solo career with a phenomenal album. I’ve read that BRAINWASHED was a bit of a disappointment commercially, which is a real shame and one of the reasons I decided to write this post. If you like The Beatles, rainy day music, hope in a hopeless world, ukuleles, top-notch songwriting, strong hooks, slide guitar, and Eastern chanting you owe it to yourself to check out BRAINWASHED.