A few years ago, a young woman who worked for me had to stay awake all night for some reason relating to a concussion her spouse had suffered. I think she had to stay up to make sure he didn’t go into some sort of sleepy death spiral (which, don’t worry, he didn’t). At the beginning of her vigil, I sent her a link to this song, describing it as something like “a gentle song for a long night”. She’s just a wonderful person, the kind that old fogeys like me refer to as “really a great kid”, and I wanted to give her a wonderful piece of music. I wanted it to be something soothing without being cloying, and I could think of nothing better to suit the moment than Mother Nature’s Son. At four in the morning, you don’t need a witless pep talk. You need something that feels real. Something that reflects the understanding that hope is always tinged with doubt.
Well, that’s what I thought, anyway. Maybe mindless cheer would have been better. I don’t think so, though. She’s far too bright and savvy for that.
So I sent her Mother Nature’s Son. This is quintessential McCartney, with lyrics that tend to lead you in one direction, and music that pulls you a bit the opposite way. Much to John’s disapproval, Paul was never one to wear his heart on his sleeve, and I think that’s why so many people miss the undertones that he communicates through nuanced shifts in chords, keys, and melody, rather than extroverted confessionals in the words. Mother Nature’s Son, as obscure a track as possible for the Beatles, is among the most perfect examples of this style of composition.
It emerged out of the ill-fated sojourn to Rishikesh to commune with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India, a trip that included many hangers-on, including folk-pop star Donovan, who tought Paul a finger-plucking style of guitar playing that’s used to great effect here (and in the companion piece Blackbird, both featured on the White Album). The simple joys of communing with nature in a pastoral setting were very much in tune with the message being thrust upon them by the Maharishi, and while urban sophisticate playboys like McCartney could never really adopt that way of life, it was a pleasant idea to toy with after the almost insane living conditions the Beatles had endured over the prior 5 years.
To my ears, Mother Nature’s Son is all about that rueful acknowledgement that the interlude at Rishikesh could be no more than a temporary reprieve. Yes, it’s lovely here in the grass by the stream, but listen to those distant drums – something less tranquil lurks not far over the horizon. Paul created this aural effect of something booming but distant in the simplest of ways, by moving kettle drums out of Studio 2 and down the hall for recording, creating an impression of distant thunder heading this way. There’s still time to enjoy one last perfect moment, but the storm is coming, as storms always must. Those beautifully mellow brass instruments make it plain that this is a happy song written in the shadow of coming sadness.