All Things Must Pass is a party thrown in honor of the power that music and art can have if we are free to create it and experience it on our own terms.
For most, if not all, music enthusiasts, the work of the Beatles is essential, a cornerstone of pop music. The solo albums? Not so much. It’s not that the individual members of the Beatles never made great music outside of the group, it’s just that there’s a lot of chaff to cut through to get to the good stuff. Even then, one’s appreciation for solo Beatles work often has a lot to do with which of the Fab Four one gravitates towards. Do you enjoy agitprop and searingly honest lyrics that often reveal too much about the writer? Enjoy John Lennon’s work. Do you love artists with a supernatural knack for melody even if they have a tendency to be total cornballs? Let me point you toward to the work of Paul McCartney and Wings. Do you like covers of old rock songs and still have fond memories of watching “Thomas the Tank Engine” as a kid? Have fun with Ringo’s albums. As such, it’s hard to come to a consensus as to which one really is the best. It’s not only a matter of which album one thinks is the best, but which Beatle, as well.
Let’s try to settle the matter as best we can, though: I’m a John guy, and yet George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass is absolutely the best Beatles solo album, hands down. To clarify, this is not to say that George Harrison had the best solo career overall of the former Beatles; like those of his former bandmates, his solo career is inconsistent and has its share of ups and downs. But none of the Fab Four rose as high on their own as George Harrison did on his initial solo offering, an untamed explosion of creativity from a songwriter coming into his own at just the right time.
Harrison had been writing songs for about as long as he had been in the Beatles, but his real maturation as a songwriter didn’t come around until the band was starting to break apart. His peak contributions to the band’s immense songwriting (“Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”) came around on the band’s last album. All the time, though, Harrison was writing, hiding away songs that the rest of the Beatles only recorded as demos. Thus, when the band finally dissolved, Harrison had almost a full album’s worth of songs to pull from. Naturally, he went and made a triple album instead.
Lennon and McCartney’s first solo albums are generally framed in the context of the breakup of the Beatles, and it’s possible to do this with Harrison as well. What this framing device does is highlight one of the greatest strengths of All Things Must Pass. Whereas Lennon chose to open the world up to his traumas and McCartney holed up in the studio to write light songs about how great being married was, Harrison steps away from the Beatles with a great sense of freedom and trust that whatever the future holds will be worth it in the end. All Things Must Pass contains multitudes, but the overarching feel is one of bliss, inner peace and a deep happiness. While Harrison allows room for conflict—see both the bombastic “Let It Down” and “Wah-Wah,” the greatest kiss-off ever named after an effects pedal—the overall mood is one of contentment and celebration.
Harrison had plenty to celebrate with this album. Song for song, All Things Must Pass is the strongest collection he ever assembled. The years of honing his craft paid off, and they’re done even better by Harrison’s instinct to go all out with this album. The album just sounds huge, both because of Phil Spector’s massive Wall of Sound (which fits in better with Harrison’s hippie-gospel tendencies more than it ever did with the Beatles) and the band of session musicians Harrison assembled to bring these songs to life. The ballads are delicately arranged and stately, and the upbeat rock tracks are so packed and dense that they reflect Harrison’s often-celebratory tone. Furthermore, Harrison walks a dangerous tightrope in his quest to write spiritual songs (though Harrison had by this point converted to Hinduism, his songs largely take a broad approach to depicting faith) without sacrificing melody or feeling. Later albums would occasionally feel a bit preachy, but he never really talks down to the listener on All Things Must Pass. Instead, he seeks to express the joy his faith has given him, and he does this so effectively that songs like “My Sweet Lord” and “What Is Life” kind of make all but the most cold-hearted atheist wish that they had a little more faith.
Religious connotations aside, All Things Must Pass is first and foremost a celebration. It’s a party thrown in honor of the power that music and art can have if we are free to create it and experience it on our own terms. This expression of music’s potential is perhaps the greatest thing to come out of the breakup of the Beatles, and it’s way more pleasant to listen to than a millionaire’s mommy issues. All Things Must Pass strikes that rare balance of pure artistic expression and wide appeal, and that, among many other reasons, is why it’s the best Beatles solo album ever.