The White Album plays like an anthology; each Beatle wrote songs that were then accompanied by some or all of the others. The album’s variety is its own statement of purpose, extending the “Sgt. Pepper” idea that the Beatles’ music was no longer bound by format, era or style. The songs confidently acknowledge and parody influences and peers: blues, country, doo-wop, parlor songs, 1920s jazz, psychedelia, musique concrete, orchestral easy listening, Baroque harpsichord, bossa nova, Jamaican bluebeat, English brass bands, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys. For the Beatles in 1968, it was all fair game.
A few songs on the White Album reacted to the turbulent sociopolitical climate of 1968. One was Lennon’s “Revolution,” which was skeptical about calls for radical change but so ambivalent that the Beatles recorded it twice: as a blaring rocker sharing a single with “Hey Jude” (released in August 1968) and as the more easygoing shuffle, “Revolution I,” on the White Album, in which Lennon sang, “When you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out — in.” Harrison’s “Piggies” sneered at upper-class complacency; Lennon’s “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill” mocked overindulged trophy hunters. More subtly, Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” was a folksy, foot-tapping, luminous paean to the civil rights movement.
But the White Album was more inward-looking and whimsical than topical. It’s sequenced to maximize its contrasts. It spans joyously raucous hard rock with “Helter Skelter,” near-private reflections in “Julia,” bitter existential complaints in “Yer Blues,” philosophical musing in “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” drollery in “Rocky Raccoon” and eerie tape-loop collage in “Revolution 9.”
The album’s endless sense of spontaneity is its most accomplished illusion. Following a not-quite-perfect attempt at “Blackbird” (Take 28), McCartney muses on how best to sing it: “I think it’s better quieter,” he says. Other outtakes show lyrics getting refined — Harrison stripping clichés out of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — and grooves evolving as in “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” In a droney, deliberate 13-minute take of “Helter Skelter,” the Beatles become the psychedelic jam band that they were far too disciplined to commit to vinyl.