Had George Harrison not died just over a year ago, Brainwashed might have been a rousing comeback record for the former Beatle. Upon listening to the album, one can’t help but notice how revitalized George sounds (his voice is as strong as it was on his last studio recording, 1987’s Cloud Nine) and how fresh and lucid his new songs are. That they are also his last songs lends Brainwashed an honest poignancy — though not one that overstates itself or overstays its welcome. Nothing about these last words sounds manipulative nor sentimental. This is a joyful work — the work of a spiritual man who saw death not as an end but as a new blissful beginning. And it is George’s audible joy that makes the album such a treasure.
Brainwashed opens with “Any Road,” an infectious up-tempo tune that only improves with repeated listening. From there, the album moves from highlight to highlight with what can only be described as grace. “Looking for my Life” and “Stuck inside a Cloud” are typical Harrison fare, and this is meant as a compliment. One forgets, when thinking of George and the Fab persona that followed him throughout his life, exactly what a gifted musician he was. It was his lead guitar that shaped the sound of the Beatles, even when John and Paul took honors for leadership of the group.
These tracks are reminiscent of some on George’s seminal solo work, (and the best solo album to be released by any Beatle) 1970’s All Things Must Pass. They are guitar-driven songs, solidly-built and satisfying in their simplicity, true to Harrison form. Much of the sound of Brainwashed was assembled after George’s death by his son Dhani and friend (and former Electric Light Orchestra member) Jeff Lynne. But thankfully, the two have taken obvious care and shown reservation in finishing the work George started, rather than overproduce and in the process drown out the spare beauty in George’s parting words. That this album does not push the envelope, sonically speaking, is perhaps its greatest asset. It sounds immediately familiar. It sounds like George. And he sounds like he’s doing well.
Thus, when George’s references to his imminent death subtly reveal themselves, they are all the more affecting. In “P.2. Vatican Blues,” George’s disarming mention of his “concrete tuxedo” sounds as if it’s sung with a knowing smile. On “Pisces Fish,” George sings: “I think of all the Gods and what they feel/ You can only find them in the deepest silence/ I got to get off this big wheel.”
Before he does, though, George leaves us with the album’s title and final track. “Brainwashed” is a grand exercise in social criticism, a calling out of everyone and everything from the president to the pope to cell phones. This is, apparently, the stuff George felt he needed to get off his chest before stepping off the wheel: a song decrying ignorance and modern excess in all the forms he could cram into one tune: “Must be something I forgot down on Bullshit avenue,” sings George. “If only we can stop the rot, wish that you’d brainwash us too.”
The song bites off quite a lot of ideological fodder (it’s replete with a spoken passage from Deepak Chopra’s “How to Know God” in its middle and a Hindu chant as its coda), but that is precisely what makes it the perfect final song on George’s final album. It is, in its way, the ultimate Harrison song: it is at once spiritual and cynical, but moreover, it bears the mark of the gentle wisdom that made George relevant and beloved well after his Fab days.