Review Summary: An important album, but far from The Beatles best work
I'm a massive Beatles fan, but yet I hardly find myself coming back to this album. Why is that? Quite simply because I find Revolver, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road, The White Album, and even Magical Mystery Tour to be far more inspired. Sgt. Peppers does have its merits. It was a landmark album conceptually, and arguably the forebear of both the concept album and the rock opera. It also marked a massive step forward for recording technology, being one of the first albums to incorporate automatic double tracking, varispeeding, flanging, wah, fuzz, and other effects. Where Sgt. Pepper's comes up short is in the actual songwriting, which is not up to snuff with The Beatles, albeit high, standards.
The first three tracks, and the last, are bona fide classics- I'll leave them alone. The mediocrity is to be found in, well, just about everything else. A problem running rampant throughout the album is what John Lennon would later decry as "Paul's granny sh*t," which I interpret as Paul's fetish with the kitsch music hall genre, seen here on "Fixing A Hole," "She's Leaving Home," and "When I'm Sixty Four." Though I wouldn't fault anyone for enjoying these songs, I consider them to be painfully corny, and among the worst material ever written by The Beatles.
Overall, Sgt. Pepper's just feels a bit too much like "The Paul Show," with negligible influence from other band members. Lennon is woefully absent, taking lead vocals on only three tracks, whereas McCartney takes lead on six. "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" and "Being For The Benefit Of Mr. Kite!" are the only the songs which even feel like "John songs," the latter being unfortunately every bit as camp as "When I'm Sixty Four."
I don't hate Paul McCartney by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, he's the Beatle I most admire- the undeniable powerhouse of the group for those who have actually researched the band. But what made the Beatles exciting was his songwriting partnership with the slightly more colorful John Lennon. Likewise, Lennon needed the more traditional McCartney, and only when things were balanced between these two creative forces did the true magic occur (see Rubber Soul and Revolver). Sgt. Pepper's to me, represents a point at which McCartney was too dominant, which is not to accuse him of being cold and calculated. It seems to me that in light of the "bigger than Jesus" controversy, Lennon's drug abuse, and changing dynamics in the music industry, Paul rose to the occasion, and took helm of the band. A noble- thing to do, but it resulted in an unbalanced sound.
McCartney even intruded into George Harrison's territory by playing most of the lead guitars on this album, a task for which I believe Harrison was more qualified. To its detriment, Sgt. Pepper's is not an album on which George shines, featuring only one of his compositions instead of his usual two or three. That one song is of course, "Within You Without You," which always struck me as a boring rehash of "Love You To." His composition, "Only A Northern Song" seemed like a much better fit for the album, but I suspect it was rejected for being somewhat of an invective against Lennon and McCartney's monopoly on songwriting.
Despite my nitpicking, Sgt. Pepper's is still a great album with a slew of creative ideas. I simply feel it's overrated, and certainly not worthy of the "greatest album of all time" status it's often elevated to. The importance of the album seems to hinge more on style than substance, and therefore, it's not surprising why so many critics are taken to it.