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Thursday, June 07, 2007

Let Me Take You Down

This past Sunday in The New York Times, professional singer, songwriter, and preying mantis lookalike, Aimee Mann contributed an article about The Beatles' most famous album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. She started out by remembering how important the album was to her when she was young, and then went on to run it down, since the easiest way to make oneself seem superior is to denigrate commonly accepted truths.

Now, Sgt. Pepper is not my favorite Beatles album. I'm partial to The White Album, that great kitchen-midden of musical styles, ideas, and approaches. However, when Ms. Mann states that she prefers the lyric writing of Fiona Apple to the lyrics of Apple's founders and calls John Lennon's melodies "underwritten," I have to take exception.

In the first place, let's take the songs of Ms. Apple. Now, when I first heard her, I thought that she was really on to something, and so I investigated her music in a bit more depth. And what I found was this: She writes songs in two modes, the jazzy one that apparently has the exact same tune every time and the other one, the forgettable one. Her lyrics, from what I've heard, are fine, but not extraordinary. And there's a certain self-congratulatory smugness that pervades her work.

Ms Mann admits to skipping over "A Day in the Life," the finest song on the album, because it was too dark for her preadolescent mind. Of course, lyrically, it is also lightyears beyond the best achievements of almost any others. Dark, yes, but also very poetic and evocative, open to interpretation.

The entire album is very sophisticated lyrically, and it covers a lot of ground. It's at once a reflection of the Beatles' desire to create a concert for their fans now that they had stopped touring and a rueful examination of nostalgia and the wish for a better future. It's an album that's about trying to survive emotionally in an increasingly dissociative world. It's about getting by, getting better, and getting along. There is, throughout it, a longing for a simpler time, a time of "Love Me Do" and "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

As far as John's melodies go, it was his countermelody in "She's Leaving Home" that musicologists held up as being an example of the Aeolian Mode, whatever that is, and had them comparing Lennon and McCartney to Shubert. And what does "underwritten" actually mean, anyway? It reminds me of the scene from Amadeus in which someone tells Mozart that his music has too many notes. "Underwritten" is a meaningless criticism, the kind of thing that someone writes when they don't have anything insightful to say.

As I said, Sgt. Pepper is not my favorite Beatles album, nor is it for many of their most devoted fans, I think, but that does not mean that I think it a poor album either. As a record--as a piece of recorded art--it is quite extraordinary, subtle, nuanced, funny, witty, and insightful without being overly self conscious. It's a great work of art, an important and seminal one, and it's still worth a listen. Aimee Mann should try it. She might be surprised.