Rating: **** (out of four)
Throughout his life, George Harrison's music offered a light to the world. And it is a testament to Harrison's enduring passion that, with his final album, "Brainwashed" - out today - his light shines equally brightly in death.
When Harrison died on Nov. 29, 2001, it seemed to many as if a candle had been extinguished. Harrison touched those he knew personally in a profound way. But he also had a deep and lasting impact on millions who had never met him, this writer included.
Harrison's music is one of the first sounds I remember hearing. Growing up in rural Massachusetts, my family was far from the cultural hub of the nation; life was fairly simple, joyous, in fact. My parents had the Beatles' "Let It Be" album. They'd break it out on Friday nights and dance with my brother and me around the stereo in our family room, adjacent to sliding doors that looked out over our back yard and miles of deep Berkshire Mountains forest. I thought all of life would be this beautiful. It was the perfect setting for the ideological blossoming that Harrison's music encouraged.
Harrison stayed with me, lending me the romantic, idealized notion that the best rock music grew with you, spoke to you, consoled you or inspired as you lived.
When I picked up the guitar for the first time, it was because of him. When I began reading Eastern literature, it was because of him. When I became serious about the six-string, he was over my shoulder as an invisible tutor. When I realized that I was far from the center of the universe, that there was much more happening than what was visible to the eye - and that most of it was more important - his music was the portal.
When he died, it was devastating in a way that is hard to describe in words that aren't melodramatic.
My relationship with Harrison's music is, no doubt, not unlike those of countless others. So "Brainwashed" is our gift. And it's hard to see it as anything else, because the man certainly owed us nothing. He'd already given so much.
I approached this album with a bit of sadness; and my expectations weren't high. Harrison released the strongest, most inspired post-breakup album by any of the former Beatles in the form of the glorious three-record watershed, "All Things Must Pass." The majority of the rest of his canon lacked that album's cohesion and sense of purpose, although all of his records have their moments of transcendent beauty. Only 1973's "Living in the Material World" lived up to the promise of "All Things Must Pass." For the rest of his career prior to his virtual retirement following 1987's mostly brilliant "Cloud Nine," Harrison's output was hit and miss.
Bearing all of this in mind, and adding the fact that Harrison had survived an attempt on his life only to battle with recurring cancer that was plaguing him at the time of its recording, "Brainwashed" would have been forgiven for being less than Harrison's best work.
What a wonderful, inspiring surprise, then, to listen to the record that is Harrison's last and realize it is full of music that ranks among his absolute best.
Harrison gets the "fun" stuff out of the way first: The album opens with a pair of upbeat pop-rockers in the vein of Harrison's work with the Traveling Wilburys.
The album-proper begins with track three, the low-key "Pisces Fish," as Harrison begins to weave in his deeper spiritual concerns. "Looking For My Life" goes even further down this road. "Oh Lord, I've got to get back to you somehow," Harrison sings, and the passion is tangible. "Rising Son" recalls the "All Things Must Pass" anthem "Isn't It a Pity," and finds the narrator tapping deeply into the universal mind. "You're a billion years old today," he sings, insisting that "the rising sun and the place it's coming from/is inside of you." Harrison's slide guitar work here - melancholy, forlorn, yet somehow immensely uplifting - is simply stellar.
None of this prepares one for the appearance of "Stuck Inside a Cloud," one of the finest songs of Harrison's career. Here, we're reminded that this is, after all, the man who penned the gorgeous Beatles power-pop classic "If I Needed Someone." Part of Harrison's immense gift is his ability to infuse the catchiness of mind-up pop with the pathos he was able to summon about the human condition. "Stuck Inside a Cloud" has this in spades, and it's impossible to swallow the lump in the throat that rises when hearing the dying man sing in his gorgeously fragile voice, "Just talking to myself, crying as we part/knowing as you leave me, I also lose my heart." It's simply beautiful.
"Run So Far" carries on in this vein, as gorgeous harmony vocals buoy a winning Harrison chorus and chiming electric guitar figures jangle. This song is worthy of the Harrison who created "All Things Must Pass."
"Brainwashed" is a bittersweet triumph. Bitter for the obvious loss. Sweet for the realization that it imparts; much as Harrison believed that our consciousness endures the dissolution of our physical being, so does the majesty and profound humanness of his work endure.
We're better for it.