Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In My Life

Late today ONLY because the internet has been out all freaking day. I have no idea how long I have, so I'll try to make this quick...

After playing around with Help! on the mono box set, I went right into Rubber Soul, figuring that the blasts of three-part vocals on this album would be interesting in mono. I was right—and thus “Nowhere Man” and “If I Needed Someone” were particularly breathtaking, obviously. But “In My Life” struck me in a different way too.

This is a song that I’ve always felt I’m not appreciating enough. I really, really like “In My Life,” but people, you know, love this song. It’s one of the most frequently covered Beatles songs (a particularly odious Bette Midler version is one that I dearly wish I could get out of my head), and people like to whip it out for graduations and Lord knows what other kinds of solemn remembrances. Maybe that’s why I get into it less. But I can’t shake the feeling that people aren’t entirely getting this song. Although John began writing it as a nostalgia piece, and original versions referred to specific places in Liverpool with almost “Penny Lane”-esque attention to detail, I read the finished version of “In My Life” as anti-nostalgic. It looks resolutely forward. “These memories lose their meaning when I think of love as something new,” sings John—strong words indeed, aren’t they? And the memories themselves have been reduced to vague shadows anyway, all the specificity removed—which has the effect of making it more universal, but doesn’t diminish the song’s direction into the future. “In my life, I love you more”—more than all those people and things that came before, anyway. This is a love whose deepness has eclipsed everything that came before it, and forced the singer to reprioritize, no matter how often he might stop and think about the past. Sounds more appropriate for a wedding than a graduation.

Anyway, my own frustrations with what the song might mean aside, “In My Life” boasts a beautiful melody as well as all the clever production details that are so typical of Rubber Soul-era Beatles. I’ve read that this is a melody that Paul wrote, but John always claimed this song as his own—and neither of them is a trustworthy source much of the time, so I’m not really sure who to trust here. I know that the lyrics are John’s—this seems to be pretty much agreed upon—and I think I want to believe that John wrote the melody too, though he might have had some help from Paul, of course. To my ear, the melody, with its slightly plodding quarter-note rhythm, is very pretty but also sort of inelegant in a way that I hear as more John-like. If Paul had written this, I think it would have sounded a little more polished, or something. This is only my own intuition, though, so feel free to fight me on this. (It’s worth noting that the inelegance suits the serious yet self-conscious tone of the lyrics. It lends the words a good dose of realism. Don’t you think?)

As for clever details, what’s most frequently called out in “In My Life” is that keyboard solo, played by producer extraordinaire George Martin at half-speed and then sped up on the recording, not only because this made it much easier for him to play the ingenious counterpoint he wrote, but because the speeding-up makes the keyboard sound more tinkly and antique. John had asked specifically for a Baroque sound here, if I recall. (And see, there’s another reason for me to believe this song really belongs mostly to John—if Paul had written the melody, I think he would have been the one making requests of George Martin like that, don’t you?) I adore this keyboard solo, which I think brings the whole song up to a whole new level of greatness—so it pains me to admit that I love it less in mono. The clear Baroque counterpoint just doesn’t shine through as clearly in the mono version as it does in the original 1965 stereo version (which has been conveniently recorded onto the same CD, so we can compare the two). The lower voice seems a little clouded by the drumming, or something. It should be said that the drumming comes off better in mono than in stereo (as is the case with most songs I’ve listened to this way so far)—it’s somehow banging a bit harder and clearer, if that makes sense. But it’s a shame we had to lose some of the magic of the keyboard to get more of the magic of the drums. Oh well.

Also interesting about listening to mono and stereo versions of “In My Life” is the level of intimacy. In the original stereo, John seems to be whisper-singing right into my left ear with all the earnestness and near-angst that makes this song so special. (Sigh.) Mono gives you more of a wall-of-sound feel, with less differentiation of the vocal line, which has the effect in “In My Life” of diminishing that intimacy and making John’s double-tracked vocal sound a bit more resonant, a bit more confident, even. It’s as if the song means something a little different. I don’t know how better to express this, but it’s very interesting—the mono version makes me feel differently than the stereo version does. The song is still complex, but somehow brighter. Then again, I swear that falsetto moment at the end, when John’s amazing voice always gives me chills, gives me even chillier chills in mono. That moment seems more crucial, more climactic—it’s almost too intimate in the stereo version.

Anyway, this is what’s so fun about the new releases, right? Whether you prefer mono or stereo, the whole experience of listening to both just enriches the song so much. Not every song will demand as much written on it, perhaps, but “In My Life” is deeply serious for a Beatles song, and has always seemed to be asking a little more of us than some of the others. The simple clarity of the guitar work and the vocal, and even that easy rhythm, are misleading—there’s some kind of love here that we’re meant to feel much, much more deeply than we’re used to in a pop song. You know, I think I’m beginning to get a little better why people love this one as much as they do.

"In My Life," released in the U.K. side B track 4 of Rubber Soul, December 3, 1965; in the U.S. side B track 4 of Capitol's awful Rubber Soul, December 6, 1965.


  1. This is one of a few songs that I feel ... well, in corporatespeak, it's kind of like I'm the project manager, and the Beatles are creative, and they run the bones of the idea for a song like In My Life by me, and I say "Sounds great! Run with it!" And then they come back with the finished product, and I'm not thrilled, yet I can't say they didn't execute the project extremely well. They just took it in another direction that interests me less. If that makes any sense. I feel the same way about John's friend Mr. Kite.

  2. Meg's back with a wonderful post. I think this song is a good example of something you have written about in past posts about how many of the Beatles' songs manage to convey an "over all feeling." This is a great example of music and lyric and vocal perfectly matching the tone of the lyrics.

    And in the beginning, it is nostalgic - intentionally so, so that those dominoes can be knocked over later by the true meaning of the song. It is impossible for me to hear this song and not reflect back in the beginning. I'm drawn backwards. We are meant to be. Ultimately, though, as Meg points out so eloquently, the song is about looking forward because of the strength of a new love.

    To me, Troy, this "two directional pull" with the lyrics is what makes the song strong. Were it simply a nostalgic song, or simply "I've found a new love that has set my life on fire" it would wan. The strength lies in the comparison. I think it is terrific writing.

    Regarding A/B comparisons of the stereo and mono mixes, I'm afraid, Meg, that reading about it gives me a brain freeze, and since Amazon wrote me today and informed me I won't receive my box set until next month, I'm a bit bummed out. Still, great to have you back in the saddle and slingin lead!

  3. Glad you defended John there (in the melody department) . .was starting to believe Paul's quote in "Many Years From Now" . . .
    Still not convinced either way . . .but it DOES seems more like a Lennon melody than a McCartney one . . .and i never thought this was a superior song, really, until everyone started pointing it out . . .and your observation about it being about the future is very astute . . .that was always John's take on life (and death)

    "Life is for the living " John, after Stu died . .(IIRC)

  4. FIRST of all, how did I not get a heads-up that this was today's post? That said, I totally agree with you about the meaning. It's not anti-nostalgia, exactly... it gives a positive nod to the past but firmly casts its preference for the soul of the present and promise of the future. In that sense, it does actually work as a graduation song, though I agree it's often misused thematically.

    As per always, I defer to you entirely on your analysis of the music and composition. I just know that to me, it's another perfect blend of melody and lyrics that, on the whole, the Beatles do better than anyone else.

    Thanks Megan! --Betsy