An analysis of the Beatles song "Eleanor Rigby", a bleak picture of loneliness and alienation from 1966's Revolver album.
Between 1964 and 1967, The Beatles retained their status as the world's most popular band, but went from lovable moptops to serious artists and leaders of the counterculture. One of the most important songs in their transition was 1966's "Eleanor Rigby", released as a double A-side single with the less adult "Yellow Submarine", spending 4 weeks on top of the UK Singles Chart. It was also included on the Revolver album, an album on which The Beatles experimented with production and instrumentation innovation, and explored new lyrical terrains. They had been steadily moving away from the teenage romance angle of the early singles that had established their massive popularity, all wide-eyed enthusiasm and youthful exuberance.
"Eleanor Rigby" sounded cold and aloof, and dealt with the futility of a lonely middle-class life and death for the song's title character. Rather than the rhythm and blues instrumentation of the classic Beatles sound (simply lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass, drums), "Eleanor Rigby" was sung over a classical backing of violins, violas and cellos, played by a string octet. It wasn't the first string section on a Beatles record: that was 1965's "Yesterday", from the Help album. But "Yesterday" also had Paul McCartney's rhythm guitar. "Eleanor Rigby" was the first Beatles song to have no instrumentational input from any of The Beatles, and no instrumentation traditionally associated with pop or rock and roll music.
The dramatic and haunting string score was written by The Beatles' producer George Martin. Though the melody is mobile and vertical in McCartney's style, the harmony is, unusually, based around just two chords: Em and C. The melody is in E dorian, that is, a minor scale with a major 6th.
Lyrically, "Eleanor Rigby" was a huge departure. The theme of loneliness is returned to in almost every image of the song. First, Eleanor is picking up the rice in a church where a wedding has been. Then she is waiting at the window, "wearing a face that she keeps in a jar by the door." Ian MacDonald, in his classic Beatles study Revolution in the Head, called this "the single most memorable image in The Beatles output." The face she keeps by the door is Eleanor's despair and sadness: she masks her true feelings when in company, unable to show her desperation in public.
The second verse focuses on a different figure, Father McKenzie. Again, his loneliness is stressed, and the ineffectualness of his sermons: he is described as "writing the words of a sermon that no one will hear." The comforts of religion are here dismissed, as they are even more forcefully in the final verse.
The final verse brings together the two protagonists: Eleanor Rigby is dead, and Father McKenzie is reading the service over her grave. The final line is chilling in its absence of hope or uplift: "Father McKenzie, wiping the dirt from his hands as he walks from the grave, no one was saved." The image of Father McKenzie wiping the dirt from his hands powerfully conveys the emptiness and pointlessness of Eleanor Rigby's life, forgotten before she's even been buried.
Why It's So Great
It's astonishing that Paul McCartney, renowned for his chirpy "thumbs aloft" persona, could have penned one of the great depictions of alienation. In later stages of his career, McCartney would probably have tried to inject some positive emotion into such a song. In "Eleanor Rigby", written when he was just 24, his vocal is blank and without passion.
He does not try to relate to his characters, merely expresses his own incomprehension of why life should be as it is for such people: "All the lonely people, where do they all come from?" It would have been easy to pretend to sympathize, but "Eleanor Rigby" rejects the idea of human sympathy. It is in its very coldness and dispassion that the song is so powerful and moving, paradoxically enough. McCartney was a rich and adored young pop star, his sympathy could hardly have avoided being patronizing. In any case, the world is full of songs expressing unbridled emotion, but there are few songs in the pop canon as coldly clear-sighted and as profoundly moving as "Eleanor Rigby".