PET SOUNDS has, and always has had, the power to make me weep like a child. There’s a reason that Brian Wilson and his troupe’s masterpiece tops innumerable Best Album Ever lists; it’s just that good. Wilson, a criminally young 23 years old upon the LP’s release, poured the sounds in his head onto 35 minutes of perfect, shimmering vinyl, and the result has gone on to influence countless acts, none moreso than Paul McCartney; it only served as the catalyst for Macca and the Four to make a little record called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
It’s hard to believe, given the subsequent critical reception, that Pet Sounds under-performed on release, at least in America. There and elsewhere, the band had coasted on a reputation as happy-go-lucky surfer merchants, slapping out breezy ditties like ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Barbara Ann’ on a consistent basis. But Pet Sounds represented something altogether more complex, and was far more ambitious than just another surf record from The Beach Boys. It dealt with issues like failed relationships, understandings of God, thinly veiled aural realisations of LSD, and, well, a sailboat. For some, it represents the passing of childhood into adulthood, and the crises and resolutions that come with that transition.
For Wilson, it represented the moment he stepped fully into the spotlight, commanding almost every aspect of production to the finest detail, employing dozens of session musicians – dubbed ‘The Wrecking Crew’ – and collaborating with Tony Asher, an ad man jingle-writer, on most of the lyrics. If the tragically unrealised Smile project was to be his “teenage symphony to God”, Pet Sounds was the inexorable first step toward that lofty goal.
And it starts with one of the greatest songs ever recorded in ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. Utilising classical techniques like ritardando and bitonality that were uncommon in popular music at the time, Wilson crafted an endlessly surprising, multi-faceted diamond of a track, buoyed on that bouncing, detuned(!) 12 string guitar intro, layered harmonies and a plethora of instruments, including accordions, tympanis and a gorgeous bassline from Carol Kaye. It establishes the trend for the rest of the album; striking vocal lines, precisely placed over delicate, varied and creative instrumentation.
‘You Still Believe in Me’ features, of all things, a bicycle horn, amidst harpsichord strums and Wilson/Asher plucking piano strings with a bobby pin for the introductory chimes. Played at a slower pace than most of the record, the track serves as an excellent companion to ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’, a stark admittance that Wilson was out-of-his-time and, by all accounts, years ahead of it.
It’s autobiographical in nature, perhaps moreso than the rest of the album. Pet Sounds was a contentious topic amongst the band, most of whom felt they were taking an unnecessary risk in departing from their surfer roots. The rise and fall of the verses and chorus, with those stunning harmonies and fading vocal lines, echoes the yearning nature of the lyrics, which Wilson plaintively delivers with total sincerity.
‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ also acts as beautiful foreshadowing to ‘Caroline, No’, the album closer. This finale is a heartbreaking ode to lost innocence, and the crushing realisation of attaining adulthood and pining for childhood. Wilson was the only Beach Boy to perform on the track, and before the album’s release had released it under his own name; the innate sadness of its melody is only enhanced by the knowledge of what befell Wilson after.
The saxophone that quietly plays underneath the first chorus, for all its two seconds, crushes me, as do the bass flutes in the coda. Even now, I still find it difficult to listen to; the innate melancholy of The Beach Boys’ music, with their songs of fading summers and smiling, fleeting vistas, is made all the more bittersweet by the addition of these more palpable, immediate and deeply human troubles.
‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)’ is a similarly paced, similarly stunning ballad; a heartfelt plea for silence and contemplation, and initially conceived as a wordless chorale, it’s another solo Brian Wilson effort, with washes of violin and splashings of piano underneath his high tenor. It’s a song, with words, about the inadequacy of communication; the power of that theme is underpinned expertly by Wilson’s tender delivery.
‘I Know There’s an Answer’, originally titled ‘Hang On to Your Ego’, is a treatise on LSD, as you do. The instrumentation is as bright and cheery as it has been elsewhere, but it also serves to cloud the controversial lyrics, which talk of “people who trip through the day”. The words, obfuscated as they are by the music, mirror the acid haze, as if heard from far away. It’s a cautionary tale, and one that also gains poignant resonance in hindsight.
The two instrumentals, ‘Pet Sounds’ and ‘Let’s Go Away For a While’, are lovely, lilting tunes that encapsulate the themes present on the rest of the LP, only without the words. The falling violin figures in the latter especially are beautiful, self-contained moments, enhancing the core melody with flighty ease. These instrumentals never settle on their laurels, constantly shifting their structures, seldom repeating their lines, enriching and surprising.
And then there’s ‘God Only Knows’. A track hailed by Macca as the greatest song ever written, ‘God Only Knows’ takes everything that came before and after it on the album and infuses that essence into itself. There’s the diverse, striking instrumentation; there’s those perfect harmonies tumbling over each other in the fade; there’s Wilson and Asher’s simple, evocative lyrics; the only difference is Carl Wilson taking the lead vocal, setting it apart from the rest of Pet Sounds, his clear tenor rising above all others. Carl was reportedly stunned when asked by his brother to take the lead vocal; the result is just another brilliant decision in a conveyor belt of peerless genius.
That’s what Pet Sounds is, above all else – peerless. Though the rest of The Beach Boys put in sterling efforts, and the Wrecking Crew session musicians all contribute exceptional work, though Tony Asher’s lyrical additions are inspired, this is Brian Wilson’s opus, his signature piece. It is his genius that manipulates the strings, underscores the harmonies and arranges the music, and it is one of popular music’s great tragedies that he collapsed in the ensuing years. Though Smile never happened, his legacy and genius had already been assured and set in stone to count the years. 50 of those years later, it still sounds as fresh and invigorating as it probably did back in 1966.