note: I wrote this for a class, at the absolute last minute. Let me know if it sucks, because it probably does. But please note: I probably won't care.
The Lennon/McCartney composition, Eleanor Rigby, is apocryphally credited to just Paul McCartney, and with pretty good reason; there's not a lot there lyrically that would be identifiably Lennon's. It could be argued that instead of being a Lennon/McCartney compostion, "Eleanor Rigby" should really be considered a Paul McCartney-George Martin composition, owing largely to the centrality of Martin's string arrangement for the song.
Martin's arrangement was only ever really given its due in the Beatles' Anthology collection, released in the mid-nineties, wherein the vocals were removed, leaving the doubled string quartet (due to the fact that it was a string quartet recorded over itself, it can't really be called an 'octet') had the original tracks remixed into stereo, allowing the cellos to embrace their throaty hum and quick runs up the scale, the violas to take their quarter-note stabs, and the violins to carry the higher registers.
Martin's arrangement, in stereo, is easily among the richest sounds I've ever heard. The studio reverberations are at the absolutely correct level; they neither overpower nor distract, but they do add a necessary since of urgent distance to the mix, without which, it could not respond so movingly to the lyrics of the song. It's a shame the quartet on the Revolver version is compressed into one mono track, panned dead center.
Whoever remastered Revolver for stereo made some very odd choices. After the introductory chorus, with the choir of McCartneys surrounding the listener, the recording engineer made the odd choice of suddenly panning McCartney's vocal hard right, and doing it right in the middle of the word "Eleanor." The choice is very distracting, and it draws attention away from the song and towards the mix--which should only happen to recording engineers--of which I am not one. Another result of this hard pan is that the verses, panned all hard right (though I doubt they're mixed any quieter than Paul's solo "All the lonely people" at the end of every verse) sound quite a bit quieter than the vocals at any other point on the track, by virtue of coming out of one speaker instead of two.
This creates, I think, an unintended correlation between the mix, rather than the music, and the lyrics. While Eleanor Rigby and Father McKenzie isolate themselves in the church--which grows increasingingly irrelevant to anyone outside (which, in this case, is literally everyone but Rigby and McKenzie)--McCartney's vocal withdraws itself from the focal point of the mix.
Ah! but the universal sentiment, "Where do they all come from," fills the speakers on both sides of the listener, saying "I am the whole point of the song! Listen to me!" (As though the fact that it's the chorus wasn't enough.) But the quick pan to right in the middle of the word "Eleanor" startles the listener into paying close attention to the verses--the specifics which illustrate the general chorus.
For me, however, the most curious fact of this song is that, despite how perfectly the string arrangement locks into the lyrics, there exists a fair number of covers of the song, some of which eschew the strings altogether. I know Ray Charles has a version, which draws nothing but mixed reviews--"It's Ray Charles, so I can't hate it," a friend of mine said, "but... it just doesn't work."
There's a hard rock cover by Vanilla Fudge, too... but my copy of that record is so badly scratched as to render "Eleanor Rigby" unlistenable. But from what I heard, the insane rock organ that fills the record more than makes up for the lack of string parts. It's not a very faithful cover, and that's fine--probably preferable, if they weren't able to score George Martin to record the exact same string quartet playing the exact same way.
Jackie Wilson's soul version is perhaps the most confusing. It has its own string arrangement, and a real, swinging beat... but the orchestration is ill-advisedly busy, and the beat makes it feel less like either "Eleanor Rigby" or almost any Jackie Wilson I've ever heard, and more like a Tom Jones-type smarmy sex jam. I tap my feet with the beat, and I want to drive around in a Mini Cooper wearing an ascot, pointing and winking at every pretty girl... and maybe this works too, I guess. Even a crazy, swingin' cat like Tom Jones, who has panties thrown at him every night, has to feel lonely, too. Right?
The Aretha Franklin cover is, well, just a disappointment. It sounds like the backing band is Booker T. and the MGs, which is totally enjoyable in its own right, The soulful electric piano lines are beautiful, and again, I bounce along with the beat. This is Aretha Franklin, and she can really do hardly any wrong, but, I'm sad to report, here she does. She drops a line or two from each verse, invariably the line I feel is most central to the verse. Perhaps most ill-advisedly, she claims by saying "I'm Eleanor Rigby." Which is is just fine until the last verse about Rigby being buried.
I know Aretha sings soul, and probably believes in an eternal soul (how's that for a baseless claim?), but she doesn't sing the song like a ghost. There's too much vitality and sheer energy.
The main point I would like to make here is that "Eleanor Rigby" is a song, not a poem. The lyrics are poignant, and in the right context, moving, but the right context for these lyrics is, I feel, George Martin's delicate and reserved string arrangement. It provides the perfect setting to make sure these lines do not descend from pathos into bathos. Though it is a valid pursuit to discuss a song's lyrics separate from its music, it can be a faulty pursuit. In the case of "Eleanor Rigby," it feels plain to me that the song loses much of its meaning once lyrics are separated from music.