“Like "My Sweet Lord,” “Hear Me Lord,” and “Your Love Is Forever,” this painstakingly created ballad comes to the heart of George Harrison’s musical life. It explores the same ground as Bob Dylan’s pivotal “Every Grain of Sand,” also released in 1981 on Shot of Love.
Harrison’s piece is a love song to his God, a concept hardly likely to endear him to critics, who were wont to liken these songs to musical chloroform. But there is a touching simplicity of expression here, as the superstar again adopts a childlike stance to express his feelings. Unlike with Dylan, there is no narrative exposition of a spiritual journey. “Life Itself” is the work of a man who has arrived at his destination. Harrison is not ‘hanging in the balance of the reality of man’ - he’s making an offering.
It is the offering of a man who lavished all he knew on the song, starting with a demo version that itself represented many hours’ effort. This private work features four guitar tracks, three backup vocals, and a little ukulele. George introduces a new, clean-and-clear electric guitar sound to the song, picking out the melody as an acoustic David Bromberg would. This is supplemented by two slide guitars and Harrison’s vocal, which give collective exposition to a simple refrain, similar in construction to “Don’t Let Me Down.”
The first completed version appeared on the original Somewhere in England,with an added rhythm section, while the final version installed the finishing touch - gospel Hammond organ, similar to “Sing One for the Lord,” with the George O'Hara Smith singers returning to provide sweeping, multilayered backup vocals. This, combined with George’s guitar choir, represents his attempt to convey his spiritual vision in music. Such meticulous craftsmanship typifies George Harrison’s best art. Although the song is lyrically naive compared with the sheer poetry of “Every Grain of Sand,” George reaches the same depth of expression in his music. His poetry is contained within the elegance of his guitar idiom, coupled with the finely etched span of the vocal chorus.
Inevitably, the critics hated “Life Itself.” The man could surely have expected nothing else in 1981 - what place did the music of belief have in a new age of reason, economic utilitarianism, and cultural iconoclasm? His problem was that his belief system was not born from the fads of the 1960s; it had deeper roots and was something he maintained until the end of his life. Even if the zeitgeist of the day had changed, he was unable to change his core values.“
- Simon Leng, While My Guitar Gently Weeps: The Music of George Harrison