Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds (1966)
!!! A+ RECORDING !!!
Brian Wilson by now was, on his own, largely leagues ahead of the greatest songwriting teams he idolized, from Goffin/King and Barry/Greenwich to Holland/Dozier/Holland, and at times even Lennon/McCartney. His work blended the eclectic and brilliant with the personal to an extent approached by few others in pop, and his commitment to making beautiful, powerful music had its reach extended by his equal mastery as an arranger and producer. At no time before in American pop music had a monumental artist enjoyed greater control over his own work, and this control, good judgment and sense of restraint became increasingly crucial to Brian despite the absurd insistence by Capitol on a constant stream of fast and furious output. Nowhere are these qualities of restraint and control more evident than on the Beach Boys' eleventh album, Pet Sounds.
This is not a record that announces itself as a "new phase" for the Beach Boys or any such thing. Taking the title semi-literally, the package has photos of the band at the San Diego Zoo feeding animals, hardly a far cry from carrying surfboards or flanking cars and less eye-catching if anything than Surfin' U.S.A. and Little Deuce Coupe. Whereas the Frank Holmes cover art to the abandoned Smile would earmark it as something separate and special, Pet Sounds seems to set out to look unassuming, perhaps in keeping with its themes of tortured identity and the struggle to reconcile private hopes with interpersonal demands, a struggle that would end up defining Brian Wilson's life for the next decade. You wouldn't know until you bought and played the record that its wistful songs ached so much.
In some ways, Pet Sounds is a less complete picture of the band than the three efforts preceding it. Almost all of the songs are ballads, the incessantly odd sense of humor is absent, and the DIY aesthetic so clear on previous outings is missing in action. In fact, it could easily be seen as a Brian Wilson solo album -- a new debut of sorts, with his first solo single "Caroline, No" as the grand finale -- that uses the Beach Boys as angelic participants (only the third track, "That's Not Me," is largely played by the band instead of the Wrecking Crew), but its immediacy and depth remain startling nonetheless. It proves once and for all that Brian was capable, with concerted deliberation, of paring his conflicting impulses down into a single coherent statement, in a medium (the rock LP) for which the rules had then yet to be written, but which through this release he single-handedly refined.
Against a backdrop of ambitious, unprecedented instrumentation and intricate melodies considerably more complicated (and certainly more heartfelt in origin) than even its obvious inspiration in the work of Phil Spector, Brian Wilson leads us into a beautiful and nearly unique song cycle. Entire books have been written devoted to the numerous layers here, musical and lyrical. Wilson draws from a bizarrely vast pool of influences, from film scores to easy-listening to baroque to Rubber Soul to Dylan, to create something personal and aurally huge, yet never overblown or difficult. Pet Sounds shifts and strides to the extent that it never immediately satiates the listener, and it's this that makes it finally so rewarding. From the sensual "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)" and mournful "Caroline, No" to the staggering instrumental "Let's Go Away for Awhile," its probing ear-candy cousin "Pet Sounds," and the brooding, startlingly adult slash of anger that is "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," the songs cast pop romance as florid, almost symphonic art, but the complex sweetness of the Beach Boys' vocals withhold any lofty aims from overtaking the music's appeal across a broad spectrum. The three best-known tracks, the pining, glistening "Wouldn't it Be Nice," the angsty folk-rock "Sloop John B," and the soul-stirring, indescribably warm "God Only Knows," channeled from some other dimension via Carl's astounding lead vocal, are unmistakably glimpses of recorded-music perfection yet still sound right at home among the other songs, and that's saying a lot. French horns, flutes, accordions don't just blend into a Wall of Sound, don't just add ornate classical texture to pop music, they function as a direct channel of the album's emotional urgency. A song like "I'm Waiting for the Day" doesn't merely talk about falling in love, it feels like it, without discarding the growing pains and melancholic questions that come later.
I could tell stories, of course. Having had this record in my life from a very young age, I can easily attest to its durability; in so many disparate situations, it sounds uncannily right and comforting, though simultaneously it sets to music the act of being alone with one's thoughts, subsuming oneself in sadness to understand it better. It's about your best friend you stupidly fell in love with, or years later it's suddenly about the adult relationship you didn't want to run its course. You know these songs back to front, but after twenty years they can suddenly choke you up so much you have to pull the car over. But exploding with hyperbole does no one any favors when it comes to something like this, and excessive verbiage can do little except violate one's personal relationship with "You Still Believe in Me," the ferociously frustrated "I Know There's an Answer," the impeccable growing-up ballad "That's Not Me," of course the juggernaut hits with their subtle traces of bitter irony, and on and on. The point of Pet Sounds is in your own relationship to it, which -- in my experience -- remains permanently elastic; this lasting achievement wholly neutralizes the disappointment of the album's muted commercial success at the time of its release in the United States, which may have been due to Capitol's apprehension over marketing such a left turn, with one label employee (or perhaps Mike Love, depending on which legend you trust) decrying Brian's act of "fucking with the formula."
The truth was, there never really was a formula, and by following his instincts without distraction Brian Wilson crafted his masterpiece. He would always claim Rubber Soul, specifically the altered American version, as his inspiration -- thus, one more Capitol Records bungle managed to change pop history. The U.S. Rubber Soul deletes the UK album's rockers plus the song that became a huge hit Stateside ("Nowhere Man"), and as a result came across as a largely acoustic, folky album with a surprising consistency of slightly dour tone that floored the Beach Boys' guiding light and inspired him to create an album with a similar unity of mood. It probably helps that Brian was exactly the same age as Paul McCartney and only a couple of years behind John Lennon, for their evolution, misdirection and insecurities as people largely informed both records. Brian shared McCartney's anxiety and doubts about romantic relationships, with the former unsure if he'd rushed into marriage -- he and his wife Marilyn would cry the entire time they listened to Pet Sounds together for the first time -- and the latter struggling ("I'm Looking Through You," "You Won't See Me") with the incompatible goals and needs of his longtime girlfriend, actress Jane Asher; compare the difficulties and inarticulate yearning on "You Still Believe in Me." Meanwhile, Lennon spent 1965 in the midst of a depression strongly reflected in his morose, reflective songs of the time, which can be biting and violent in a way Brian never was but aren't a hard comparison with the more plainspoken isolation of "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times." It's easy to talk about these two albums somehow representing a zenith of rock & roll creativity in the mid-'60s, but their real essence is their exploration of the pains and complexities of young adulthood, a major reason they've both remained resonant for half a century.
As a personal message about unrequited, doomed or fleetingly blissful love from the album's creator to the listeners, Pet Sounds is moving beyond measure. The truth is, it has scarcely a false note; "Here Today" is a bit dated and infected by its sweltering time, but so is "The Word." Even with most of the lyrics penned by Brian's new partner Tony Asher, every sentiment -- depicting the same themes of displacement and loss that overshadow everything the Beach Boys have done -- seems felt. Pet Sounds is everything right and good about pop music distilled down to thirty minutes, and though it's a crowning achievement, I would like to think that Brian meant it more as an example of what is possible in the rock idiom, which makes it that much more impressive.
[Originally posted in much shorter form in 2003.]