I will say it right now: Magical Mystery Tour is my favorite Beatles record.
I will also say that “my favorite” and “the best” are different (the best is yet to come).
And everyone knows that Magical Mystery Tour isn’t the best Beatles record: it’s too experimental, too out there, not accessible enough–but that’s what makes it my favorite. In the context of Sgt. Pepper, it’s cut from the same cloth, but it takes the more avant-garde portions–the heavily processed vocals, the sound collages, the odd orchestral interjections–and expands on them.
The song that most benefits from this studio noodling is “Blue Jay Way” (my favorite George song). The entire song is coated in the kind of hypnotic wash of noise that’s so popular these days, with a phased drum track fading in and out. The voices are heavily processed, and the BGVs pan heavily between the speakers, while an effected celloemerges from the reverbed fog of organs and descends again. “I Am The Walrus” uses the same bag of tricks, but as an upbeat pop song instead of “Blue Jay Way’s” mesmerizing drone.
Paul’s songs, as they mark his Beatles tenure at large, are more conventional than John’s and George’s, relying less on studio expansion and more on good ol’ fashioned songwriting. “The Fool On The Hill” finds him being interrupted by an orchestra again, much like in “A Day In The Life,” but the effect here is the opposite of the tension building climax of Sgt. Pepper’s piece.
Some might say that the album as a whole is a little fractured due to its composition: side one features songs from the nonsensical head scratch-inducing film of the same title, and side two is a collection of singles released in 1967, but you’d never guess by listening to the record.
Even having been recorded and released a year earlier, side two serves as a fitting complement to the songs from the film–they even have the same avant-garde streak, especially with Strawberry Fields Forever and Baby, You’re A Rich Man (one of the group’s most under-appreciated tunes, what with its synthesizer solo and whatnot). Even Penny Lane, with its McCartney pop-classicism, doesn’t seem out of place, having a companion in Your Mother Should Know on the first side. The album closes with “All You Need Is Love,” the anthem for which the Beatles will always be remembered for.
While not as ambitious as Sgt. Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour is an excellent post-script to a career-defining record, like Amnesiac to Kid A (to make a less dated comparison). And like Amnesiac, listening to it in context with its part one isn’t necessary for a worthwhile and enjoying listen.
Not bad for the hodge-podge it is. But then, its cohesion in spite of its origin is a testament to the great consistency of the Beatles.