It wasn’t just that Rubber Soul was sonically groundbreaking (it was), or that Lennon and McCartney’s songwriting had reached new heights of maturity and ambiguity (okay), but that it was the first Beatles album where each song seemed to exist unto itself and yet worked in alchemical harmony with everything around it: the emergence of the pop album as creative kaleidoscope.
McCartney had told the New Musical Express that the band was banking on comedy being the next big thing after protest music—a reflection, possibly, of the existential irreverence one feels on acid, their growing insularity from (and reluctance toward) the culture at large, a philosophical commitment to enjoying the ride, or some giddy mix of all three.
Whatever the case, Rubber Soul is a deeply funny album: the gender play of “Drive My Car” (and the beep-beep backing vocals), the cabaret of “Michelle” (because nothing warms up the object of one’s desire like French), the way Lennon sucks deeply through his teeth before oozing the chorus to “Girl.” Even the album’s most earnest songs (“Nowhere Man,” “In My Life”) were touched by a nursery-rhyme gentleness that made their themes (psychic alienation, the astonishing continuity of past and present) go down easily. As for “Norwegian Wood,” what can you really do with the suggestion that the narrator burns the girl’s house down but shrug in uncertainty? This is how the album unfolds: colorful, dreamy, and delirious on the surface, with shadows swimming underneath.
The overall feeling is one of liberation: In getting a little chemical-assisted distance from their egos, the band was able to explore style in ways that felt fluid and radical, changing costumes from song to song instead of locking themselves continuously into being The Beatles—a channel-changing approach that only became more pronounced as their career wound on (especially on the White Album and Abbey Road), not to mention set a new precedent for the diversity of modes and expressions pop artists were suddenly allowed to explore. As for the title, McCartney had remembered something an old bluesman said about Mick Jagger—that he was “plastic soul.” In the original iteration, it was a diss; in The Beatles’ version, it was a statement of liberation: In embracing artifice, you free yourself from the confines of the real.