Though "Girl" is generally, I think, agreed to be one of the stronger Beatles tracks and a key point in John's development as a songwriter, it's sometimes overshadowed by some of the other notable moments on Rubber Soul ("Norwegian Wood," "In My Life," even the far inferior "Michelle"), and I tend to give it a higher spot in my personal top 10 (or 15 or 20) more than some people might. So bear with me as I wax all sigh-y and lame about "Girl," because it's so beautiful and intimate and strange all at once. I mean, let's just forget for a minute that John later in his life got a little stupid when talking about this song, saying to Rolling Stone in his 1970 interview that "Girl" is really about Christianity or something, which, what? No, seriously, forget it. It's not worth talking about. In fact, whereas John was more likely than Paul or George to write directly about personal matters (sometimes squickishly so), "Girl" becomes meaningful because of the way John touches at something very universal here-- far more universal than some kind of wry commentary on religion would be. I simply don't buy it, and it weakens the song's power to claim such a thing. It's affecting on a deeper, sadder level. It's not even a love song, really-- it's like a song about longing for something that always proves illusory and disappointing. Maybe the girl isn't even a girl.
Anyway, let me count the ways in which I love "Girl." For one, I love the tension between major and minor keys. The Beatles did this with some frequency-- we just the other day heard Paul playing around with relative minors to such memorable effect in "Penny Lane"-- and here in "Girl" it's particularly nice. The verses are in c minor, while that brief one-word chorus is in E-flat major, which lifts the melancholy even while it significantly differentiates the one crucial word. And that's something else I like-- what tremendously good writing that is, you guys, seriously. You have these sort of wordy, dare-I-say literary lyrics in the verses, punctuated with a chorus of the word "girl" and that deep, intimate inhalation (exhalation?) of breath, which is so weird-- it's as if words have just failed him. (Depending on whom you believe, that breath is meant to be the sound of pot smoke, or else a far more sexual sort of heavy breathing, but whatever its literal meaning was intended to be, it comes across as compacted frustration/world-weariness, which is awesome.)
The verses of "Girl" also boast one of John's lovelier melodies (and John isn't really a natural melodist the way that Paul is), which are then juxtaposed with a much more typical Lennon-ish sound in the bridge, where John sings an almost one-note melody against the thick wash of Paul and George (I think?) singing "tit-tit-tit-tit." (Paul has spoken about how they snuck those dirty words past producer George Martin with no small degree of relish. Hee hee!) So again, the song derives power from the balance of its very different elements.
My favorite bits might be toward the end, though. In the last sung verse, in which John sings the poignant and mysterious lines about a man breaking his back to earn his day of leisure, George is playing a counter-melody in straight quarter notes on a quite bright acoustic guitar, which is a really lovely moment. Then, even better, that melody returns in the very last verse, but instead of John singing we get yet another guitar melody playing straight eighth notes in counterpoint with it. Something about the timbre makes this moment sound like a kind of morose European dance, doesn't it? I don't know. It doesn't sound quite like anything else in the Beatles catalog. On that last verse, by the way, don't you love the boom-swish move Ringo is drumming? Really steams up the ambiance, that does. The drumming is really nice the whole way through, honestly-- the intimate little tapping through most of the verses is perfect for the whole mood here, and then the cymbals in the end really do sound breathy somehow. Amazing.
"Girl" totally makes my gut hurt, it's so good-- which may or may not have anything to do with the fact that I always wanted to be John's girl. Sigh. Of course, in the mythology of the song, it would have all ended in tears anyway.
"Girl," released in the U.K. side B track 2 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side B track 2 of the far inferior Capitol Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.