Review Summary: Close your eyes and be still.May 16, 1966
– After a year’s worth of toiling and committing every single second of tape to his perfectionism, Brian Wilson’s magnum opus Pet Sounds
was unveiled to mixed reactions. In America, it sparked complaints from those who expected more fun-in-the-sun/hot rod hits or simplistic love songs with a cookie cutter boy/girl element that The Beach Boys had perfected with classics such as ”Don’t Worry Baby”
and ”Surfer Girl”
. Capitol, the band’s label, hardly promoted the album based on the excuse that the album would sell based on the band’s popularity alone. Pet Sounds
debuted at 106, peaked at 10, and practically underperformed in every single way in the States. On the other side of the pond, Britain lauded the album, sending it straight to the second spot on the charts. Several musicians and the press heaped praise upon the Boys’ latest album and hailed it as revolutionary.
Fifty years on, the claims that Britain’s music press made were long confirmed to be correct. To call it astounding, incredible, game-changing, innovative, all of that hyperbolic mumbo jumbo, is tired. Yet, it’s spot on in every way. Before Pet Sounds
hit the scene decades ago, pop music had been heavily focused on selling singles. Even The Beach Boys were relatively a single-oriented group, their albums being the vehicle for said hits with some filler added on to move units. The story of how Wilson heard the reconfigured Rubber Soul
is infamous in itself – in a moment of inspiration, Wilson runs to his wife, Marilyn and declares he’ll create the greatest album ever made. And with The Wrecking Crew at his disposal, Wilson set out to do just that. Over the spring of 1966, Wilson painstakingly led strenuous sessions laying down the backing tracks to several songs that had their beginnings as early as 1964 (“I’m Waiting for the Day”)
, while intending on having the complex vocal arrangements overdubbed by the absent Boys, who were on tour at the time of the initial recordings. Fast forward through their return, the group in-fighting that followed (in which the infamous “don’t fu
ck with the formula” story took root) and the gradual acceptance of Wilson’s compositions, and Pet Sounds
as we know it was complete.
From the playful opening strains of ”Wouldn’t It Be Nice”
, the change in direction is evident, yet subtle. Whereas the arrangement of the song is upbeat and perky, the lyrical subject of two young lovers who wish to be together, yet are restricted by their age is something that wasn’t new to the band’s repertoire (”I’m So Young”
comes to mind) and isn’t exactly controversial today, but stirred up a bit of negative reactions upon its release in the more conservative parts of America. The reaction it got, however, was minor in comparison to ”God Only Knows”
. In some parts of America, several listeners were outraged by the use of ‘God’ in a pop song, even getting it banned from the radio for its “blasphemous” lyrics. Aside from the controversy of those two songs, the lyrical content within Pet Sounds
, like the musical arrangements, were ambitious and complex. Described by Beach Boy Mike Love to be “Brian’s ego music”, the themes leaned heavily on self-doubt, love, faith and alienation – all of which perfectly paralleled with Wilson’s feelings at the time.
The lyricism at some points, are heartbreaking ("Could I ever find in you again/things that made me love you so much then")
, depressing ("Each time things start to happen again/I think I got something good goin' for myself/but what goes wrong?")
, and at some points, devoid of hope (the tag for "I Just Wasn't Made For These Times"
; Wilson's tormented sentiments of a lost love in "Caroline, No"
). In terms of musicianship, Pet Sounds
was ground-breaking. On several songs, such as ”That’s Not Me”
, ”I Know There’s An Answer”
and ”Caroline, No”
, a pattern of gradually introducing more percussion is prominent, allowing the arrangements more room to breathe, as well as give more emphasis on the band’s vocals. On other songs, like the standout ”I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”
, the theremin is an alien element in the composition, perfectly portraying Wilson’s growing depression and alienation from society; or on ”Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”
’s organ-dominated sound that showcased Wilson’s desperate vocal about a deteriorating romance in the absence of not only other session musicians, but the other Beach Boys.
The two instrumentals, ”Let’s Go Away For A While”
and ”Pet Sounds”
are both innovative not only for their sophisticated arrangements, but for the fact that they were more than mere filler tracks, but fully developed pieces that played their own part in the overall finished product in an era where instrumentals were meant to pad out the average pop album’s running time (“Denny’s Drums” from Shut Down Volume 2 is an example of this practice)
. Lastly, for pop music circa 1966, the wide array of instruments (and various found objects such as coke bottles, bicycle bells and Wilson’s own dogs) is greatly experimental in comparison to the band’s contemporaries. Thanks to Wilson’s perfectionism in the control booth, the arrangements were far ahead of their time and caused many other popular groups, including one certain band from Liverpool, to improve their skills and up the ante to catch up to Wilson and the Boys. Without this album, pop music as we know it in 2016 would be greatly different. Without Pet Sounds
, the likelihood of other musicians finding the courage and inspiration to experiment, to grow as musicians, would become miniscule. The album’s influence is that
great and far reaching.
Retrospectively, Pet Sounds
has its own myriad of devoted fans that all have a connection with the album in one way or another – whether it be personal or not. The themes and messages Wilson spoke of throughout the album have managed to touch people emotionally, I myself being one of them. What set Pet Sounds
apart from other albums of the period aside from the sound and lyricism, was the honesty and vulnerability of the songs. Nowhere else would you hear someone sing so desperately or passionately like Carl Wilson did on ”God Only Knows”
, or relate to the jealousy, and the loneliness, of the narrator (Mike Love) on ”Here Today”
and ”That’s Not Me”
; or feel relieved, yet amazed at the compassion and faith one can have in others like in ”You Still Believe in Me”
. Fifty years on, the emotion poured into Pet Sounds
is still as potent as it was in May 1966, to such an effect that its influence hasn’t wavered, but only increased with time, most especially in its home country where it was spurned for being too emotional, too dramatic, and most of all, too different
. Being different hasn’t hurt anyone, now hasn’t it?
”When you listen in the light, you look around and you can see things, but in the dark you can hear it all.”