Friday, June 11, 2010

Best three songs in a row - Pt. 8

Parts one, two, three, four, five, six, and seven.

Album: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Three songs: The title track, "With a Little Help from My Friends," and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds"
Comments: For the second straight time, an album's opening three tracks proved to be the worthiest. The great tyranny that Help and Rubber Soul worked against has resurrected itself. Injustice reigns!

Here's how I thought through Pepper: Yes, it's a classic. And yes, it's an album that I usually enjoy quite a lot. But sometimes when I listen to it, a nagging and very specific sense of dissatisfaction sets in. What happens on these occasions is this: the songs that follow the opening trio - "Getting Better" to the reprise - all strike me as digressions and detours along the way to "A Day in the Life," the album's untouchable capstone. They seem frivolous and indulgent (some of them often do, in fact, because they are), existing to pass the time, distract, and amuse, all while the extraordinary payoff of the finale lies in wait. "Getting Better" just gambols about, while "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" serves as a parochial sideshow (apropos its subject matter).

Are these characterizations fair? Not entirely. Am I painting with overly broad strokes? Yes. There are some superior songs in that stretch. Delicate and sensitive, "She's Leaving Home" boasts one of Paul and John's most mature lyrics, not to mention a gorgeous string arrangement; I'll always be an unabashed apologist for "When I'm Sixty-Four,"* which I think shows that Paul's predilection for the antiquated could have a treacly charm; and "Lovely Rita" is just a hoot. Because of the heated backlash that's arisen in recent decades against Pepper, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that it's a wonderful record. The problem is that the influence it's exerted on pop music far outstrips how good it is on a song-by-song basis.

As I alluded to, tracks four through twelve (or maybe we should just cut the reprise from the discussion and say, "through 'Good Morning Good Morning'"), that is, the heart of the album and then some, offer a mixed bag, and drag Pepper down to a certain degree. And, returning to the subject of this post, three great songs in a row are hard to come by in a mixed bag. Thus the combination of the title track, "Friends," and "Lucy" presented the obvious choice. They're classics, and you don't need me to explain why.**

* - I've long thought there are two kinds of Beatles fans: those who celebrate "When I'm Sixty-Four" and those who emphatically do not.

** - I made it through the main body of this post without once using the phrase, "concept album."

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