Saturday, October 17, 2009

Enjoy the Show: "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" Review

Album: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Artist: The Beatles

Genre: Psychedelic Rock / Pop
Length: 39:42
Release Date: Jun 1st, 1967
Label: Parlophone / Capitol
Producer: George Martin

As I readied to start writing reviews again, I was hindered by the thought of what, exactly, should mark my re-entry. What album could I analyze that would conjure images of the epic and the daring, that would brew up the storms of controversy I tend to be well known for? After much pondering and consideration, however, the answer stood before me, intimidating and daunting: I would return to the roots. Not those of my own, mind you, but music itself; to the heart of the beast, the lifeblood that pumps inspiration through the veins of the pop industry. I would travel back in time to the 60s, when the new body of music arose from behind a shroud of marijuana smoke.

This is my greatest stand. This is my darkest and lightest hour both. This is my review of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

But first, allow to quickly establish my position on The Beatles, if I may: contrary to popular belief, I don’t actually hate them. In fact, prior to this review, I knew nothing more of them than what has become public common knowledge. What I do hate, of course, are the fans, the cult birthed in the wake of their reign that sets out to make any accomplishment in music pale before the veil casted by their four gods. To this today I find the prospect of any band being the “one true master” to be absolutely ridiculous. Does it not divert the eyes of humanity away from new accomplishments in favor of those which have already happened? Does it not defy the concept of music being an abstract concept which can satisfy equally in more forms than one? This is what I despised, and yet to prove them wrong I would have to defile their sacred idol, to destroy that which they pray to. I would have to prepare an assault on what many call the greatest album of all time, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

So…let’s get started.

In my mind, it’s easier to summarize SPLHCB not by what it is, but what it isn’t. What it isn’t is the greatest album of all time, the sacred, untouchable masterpiece that it so consistently is made out to be. It isn’t flawless, it isn’t seamless, and it isn’t exactly “pure” (in the sense that one might expect the pinnacle of music to be an unmitigated product of the human soul rather than the by-product of substance usage).

And yet (and this is where it gets shocking, I know) I was quick to discover that it also isn’t bad. In fact, it seems to me more accurate to label the album not as the top of the musical pedestal, but the bottom: the foundation upon which nearly everything that followed it built up from. It has goals, and achieves them; it takes risks, and they work. It’s the jack-of-all-trades of the music world, a work that excels at little yet accomplishes much.

Really, on a technical and compositional level, there isn’t much to say about SPLHCB that hasn’t already been said. The sound of The Beatles, love it or hate it, is iconic, and all of the elements that form its compound are present here in full swing. The swooning vocal melodies, the air of psychadelia, the almost “bouncy” (if somewhat dull and unimpressive) drum beats of Ringo Starr…it’s all here. Many of the songs featured here are at the height of fame and public knowledge, particularly “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, and yet I don’t think the album operates solely on a song-by-song basis. It’s the little moments that create SPLHCB, from the almost comedic background noises of the title track to the Indian, tribal vibes of “Within You Without You” to the sweeping orchestral elements of “She’s Leaving Home”. The Beatles pioneered the use of new effects and complex arrangements on this album, and when it shows, it also shines; the bizarre and darkened orchestral moments that are interspersed throughout the otherwise happy and cheery “A Day in the Life” are almost haunting, finishing off the album on a high note by ironically sounding at its lowest. The weakness of the album, in my mind, is that it too often limits its ambition and devolves into simple minded pop (or, in the case of songs like “When I’m Sixty-Four”, the style of musicals…bleh). The aforementioned tracks stand out the most in my mind because they represent that which The Beatles have come to: change, the introduction of new ideas to old formulas. It’s a shame, really, that the pop industry as a whole has come to recognize the more bland entries of SPLHCB as models to follow.

That the album has stood the test of time for so many individuals surprises me, because within minutes I could see the tears in the stitches that hold this album together. For one thing, as a lyrical piece, the whole thing doesn’t hold up. The myriad drug references are cute at best, and everything else ranges from the average to the nonsensical (the words to “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” were adapted almost word-for-word from an old circus poster…no, really). It isn’t exactly a masterpiece of instrumentation either, nor is it trying to be (though I must say the sudden guitar solo towards the end of “Good Morning Good Morning” was as decent as it was surprising). I just find it amusing that it has gone on to inspire thousands upon thousands of untold artists with nothing more than the beating of its own proverbial heart. There isn’t a single thing about the album that gave it such power; The Beatles just wrote a set of songs, and fate worked out the rest. For anyone to try to duplicate what they did would end in failure as assuredly as someone attempting to find two snowflakes that look exactly alike.

Perhaps I am not the one to talk about pointlessness; after all, look what I’m trying to critique here. Chances are, you, the reader, have already heard enough of The Beatles to know whether or not you follow their religion. I write this regardless, however, to dispel the myth that The Beatles are beyond criticism. As a matter of fact, nothing is; there will be no golden album, descending from the heavens, that every single individual on Earth will treat indisputably as the second coming. Flawlessness is a hypothetical concept; for everything else, flaws exist that can be criticized. Critics exist to project their own satisfaction or dissatisfaction upon the world, regardless of popular opinion; even if, in their unified voice, a single decision reigns most powerful, there can one, if only barely audible that chooses another.

I am that one voice. I am here to say that Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a good album. Not perfect, but good, or rather the essence of good. I can see how it is qualified as the measuring stick with which to weigh pop music, but certainly not all music, and certainly not how it is held with the highest possible regard.

Yet that I am able to respect it at all humbles me. In my travels towards that blackened heart, I discovered more than I anticipated. There are some good songs here, products of a band that worked well together (well, sometimes anyway) with a taste for many flavors of the musical spectrum. In my opinion, it isn’t the greatest in the way that most people say…but it is the greatest at something, and that is more than I ever imagined it would be.


Nathaniel Haller said...

yeah, more reviews, i found this one rather interesting and surprising, keep it up

Vinnie said...

I'm more than a little shocked, but I enjoyed this review. Welcome back Steve.

Anonymous said...

Ha I knew it. I told you you wouldn't think it sucked. All I ever wanted was for Steve to admit the Beatles are good. And I absolutely loved the review.