Today’s formative-album replay: The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We think of world-building as something narrative artists do, whether it's Whedon, Tolkien, or Punchdrunk. But music makes worlds too, both dimensional and durational. This is what I might humbly add to the gallons of ink spilled about this epochal record on its 50th birthday: that among its legacies is that it's essentially a work of musical theatre, albeit a revue staged in the virtual space of our minds. Just as a good musical teaches us how to hear it or a good piece of genre fiction sets up the rules and expectations of its imaginary universe, Sgt Pepper's turns on the vaudeville footlights before we even hear a note, briefly evoking the pre-curtain anticipation that is one of theatregoing's most addictive drugs, then running through the pointedly anonymous barker’s-intro number of the title before turning the spotlight on the band's most indifferent singer for a self-effacing two-step. In case that squirting-flower gag hasn't clued us in, the next song literally orders us to picture ourselves in a sort of Magritte fever dream, and to look out for a mirage-like girl who may or may not be the same bird aloft in the diamond-studded sky of the chorus. The roar of the greasepaint could hardly be louder, the smell of the crowd more pungent.
Here’s the thing, though: Like the best illusionists, who give us tantalizing glimpses of the tricks of their trade to make us feel in on the joke, all the better to dazzle us, the Beatles don’t hide the seams in the stitching here, musically speaking. To a degree unheard on any of their previous records, they do pump-priming modulations, full-stop splices between discrete sections (“Lucy,” “Day in the Life,” “Good Morning”), winking “ta-da” cadences (“Mr. Kite”), and a Rolodex of key signatures that, if not precisely exotic, won’t sit still, scaling up and down according to their own intuitive logic. (On this last subject I will just add with satisfaction that the opener and closer both start in G and move to E; and, as if to both smooth and heighten the shock of the record’s most jarring transition, the raga haze of “Within You Without You” rolls into the handlebar-moustache jaunt of “When I’m 64” without leaving the key of C#).
The lyrics, of course, have all but abandoned the first person, or at least the presumably personal voice of pop music’s unblinking “I,” itself an unacknowledged artifice. Even the record's most straightforward statement, "Getting Better," has an otherworldly, nervy frisson in this shape-shifting context. The paradoxical result of the album's self-consciously storytelling, scene-setting experiments is a new freedom to go even deeper into subjective experience, psychedelic and otherwise. This may be the album's most durable breakthrough: The Beatles went through the stage door in Sgt. Pepper’s and came out more themselves than ever.
Previous Beatles replays: Rubber Soul, Hey Jude.