Following up All Things Must Pass was never going to be easy. After all, if you’ve created what people consider to be your masterpiece, expectations are high in regards to what comes next. The suits want something to be just as commercially successful, while the audience wants something that will compare to its predecessor. You’ll have a lot of people praising you simply because of that previous success, yet you know inevitably that you’ll disappoint some, because you either didn’t innovate more, or because you didn’t rehash the formula.
George Harrison’s follow-up was slow in coming. Instead of rushing into the studio to make a follow-up—or going out on tour for a year or more to promote said record—Harrison diverged a bit, organizing the first rock and roll benefit concert, The Concert for Bangladesh, which was a successful performance, benefit album, and concert film. In its own way, Harrison navigated a way to remove some of that pressure by having a project that in its essence was critic-proof. After all, who can criticize such a noble cause?
For Living In The Material World, released in 1973, Harrison didn’t try to mimic All Things Must Pass. Instead of a smorgasbord of sounds and styles found there, Harrison’s focus was much more meditative, introspective, and spiritual. It is, for all intents and purposes, a religious album; Harrison’s Hindu faith had grown deeper over the years, and here was his first chance to fully explore the philosophical beliefs he held.
Harrison was conscious enough to realize how off-putting religious zeal could be. He had a knack for tempering his faith in a manner that was much more universal in scope. Thus, he could sing about god in such a way that would appeal to people of different faiths. By focusing on the concepts of faith that are universal, he could make a record that was commercially viable and religiously satisfying. The opening number, “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace On Earth),” was a hit, and though it is quiet, hushed, and a bit reserved, it’s an even deeper religious message than “My Sweet Lord.”
Harrison was aware that others might not like this new direction, and in “The Light That Has Lighted The World” addresses this; instead of condemning those who don’t understand him and his message, he meekly calls for them to take a moment and consider their own position, that they aren’t condemning his message, but are, in essence, condemning his happiness. “Living In The Material World” goes even further, naming his bandmates and telling their history, all in acknowledgement that even a Beatle—arguably four of the most successful musicians of the 20th Century—can reflect upon their riches and their wealth and acknowledge that these things do not make them happy—that one needs something more, something greater than themselves. The closing number, “That Is All,” is one of Harrison’s most sublime compositions, a simple love song dedicated to the audience/an unnamed woman/God/you—you choose. It’s all the same.
Living In The Material World is a sleeper of an album. It’s mellow, it’s deeply spiritual, and it was a record that required the listener to think a little bit and contemplate deep thoughts. Some have dismissed it, but it’s a record that, forty years later, still causes the audience to think. It, however, would prove to be a calm before the storm…