THE BEACH BOYS: PET SOUNDS (1966)
1) Wouldn't It Be Nice; 2) You Still Believe In Me; 3) That's Not Me; 4) Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder); 5) I'm Waiting For The Day; 6) Let's Go Away For Awhile; 7) Sloop John B; 8) God Only Knows; 9) I Know There's An Answer; 10) Here Today; 11) I Just Wasn't Made For These Times; 12) Pet Sounds; 13) Caroline No.
Could it actually happen so that someone lands on this review without having previously heard, if not Pet Sounds itself, then at least of Pet Sounds and its influence? In the unlikely event of a yes, here are three basic facts and one popular opinion you need to know: (1) Pet Sounds is the only album in the Beach Boys catalog that can be objectively described as a Brian Wilson solo album with guest vocal harmonies provided by the Beach Boys; (2) Pet Sounds is the album that singlehandedly initiated the destruction of The Beach Boys as America's juiciest commercial proposition; (3) Pet Sounds is the album that forever cemented the reputation of The Beach Boys as America's finest pop-art institution. And that opinion? Simply that Pet Sounds is the greatest album ever recorded, bar none.
Trying to expand on this condensed information in an original way, offering fresh insights and unique analysis, is probably futile. The mass impact of Pet Sounds in 1966 was incomparable to that of the Beatles, and could seem to be dissipating in the ensuing years, what with the band's overall reputation going to tatters. But ever since the great and magnificent Pet Sounds revival around the early 1990s, in large part due to its huge influence on all sorts of alternative and underground musical genres that were infiltrating the mainstream, so much has been written on the subject from all points of view that... well, prepare to be bored.
Clearly, Pet Sounds is a watermark — the single highest point that Brian's creativity managed to reach, an ambitious project that had the luck of having each of its ambitions fulfilled, a complex work of art on which the principal artist managed to be in total control and get everything to work exactly, or, at least, nearly-exactly, as he'd envisioned it. Sort of a Citizen Kane for pop music, a fabulous surprise success after which the original artist would inevitably run out of luck, because there's only so much luck you are entitled to in your lifetime.
Just as clearly, the endless comparisons between Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper (or Revolver, or whatever other Beatles album there is) are pointless, because the principal players differed in quantity and purposes. Brian was mostly alone (not counting fellow lyricist Tony Asher), busy writing a concise, conceptual, monolithic «teenage symphony to God» (he invented the term in relation to Smile, but, personally, I think it works much better when applied to Pet Sounds). The Beatles consisted of at least two (at the time — almost three) distinct and multi-tasking creative personalities whose spirituality, primary influences, and manner of work had nothing in common with Brian and his approach. Rumor, partially spread by Van Dyke Parks, has it that hearing Sgt. Pepper was one of the reasons behind Brian's creative collapse in mid-1967 — I find it extremely hard to believe, because there is just no way Brian would ever have wanted to record an album similar to Sgt. Pepper in the first place.
Less clear to spell out are the actual reasons for which this music remains so timeless. As I return to these songs, which I had not properly listened to for several years, with a fresher ear, and happily understand that every single one of them has been firmly remaining in my head for all this time, I become more and more convinced — what is truly and uniquely fabulous about Pet Sounds is not the reckless experimentation, not the tons of backing musicians, not the use of empty Coca-Cola cans for percussion, not the exquisite baroque flourishes, not the complex engineering techniques, not even the over-the-top arrangements of backing vocals. All of these things have their functions and are always in their proper place, but Pet Sounds could still be Pet Sounds without them, just wouldn't present so many happy excuses for critics to shoot off their mouths.
What really makes Pet Sounds so special, in my view, are the main vocal melodies. There are, indeed, some of the most fabulous singing parts ever recorded in pop music out here. Rhythmic, symmetric, elegantly organized, catchy — and dripping with raw, unfaked emotion — and displaying a brand new advanced level of intelligence and complexity. In 1965, there was still no talking about this kind of depth. In 1967, there would already be no talking about this kind of discipline
After all these years, 'Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)' still remains one of my favorites — an amazing feat, considering that slow, lethargically paced, dreamy ballads are almost never my thing. And in a different setting, a different performer could very easily miss the life in these vocals. But it is the vocal modulation that carries the main content — most of all, the subtle transition from verse to chorus, the former delivered with romantic solemnity ('I can hear so much in your sighs / And I can see so much in your eyes...') which culminates in high-pitched near-ecstasy ('...there are words we both could say...'), the latter then briskly undercutting the pathos and wiping off all traces of sappiness: 'don't talk...', he sings with a no-bull attitude that almost borders on irony, 'put your head on my shoulder...' with an added bit of very natural caressing, no overplaying involved — the vocals only move up again on the finishing '...let me hear your heart beat', as the chosen method of communication starts to work its charm. Miss any one of these components and you miss out on a great new way to tell an old story.
Little wonder that Brian sings lead on seven out of eleven vocal numbers — leaving Mike Love with a fairly pitiful presence on the album, which was probably a much stronger reason for Mike shunning Pet Sounds in subsequent decades than any purely ideological disagreements. (He does a damn fine job on 'That's Not Me' and 'Here Today', though — but apparently the former was too personal, and the latter too complex, to be properly reproduced on the stage. And, by the way, concerning the story of how Mike was pressing Brian into changing some of the more obscure lyrics — I find that the new, «simplistic» lyrics to 'I Know There's An Answer' actually sound far less contrived and unduly pretentious than the original 'Hang On To Your Ego', one of the silliest refrains of the year). Brian could have easily done the lead vocals on 'God Only Knows' as well, but preferred to donate the song to Carl, a move that pretty much singlehandedly shaped his image as that of a smooth, irresistable romantic loner. But overall, this is Brian's album, and it was only fair that he, and no one else, should vocalize his own emotions, all of which he did admirably.
At the same time, in 1966 Brian was still keeping a fairly rational head on his shoulders. Understanding that an album filled from head to toe with slow-moving confessional tear-jerkers would hardly go down easy with audiences previously used to 'Help Me, Rhonda's and 'Fun Fun Fun's, he commences both of the album's sides with a deceptively upbeat start. The hushed mandolin sound that opens 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' rips into a danceable tempo in a manner somewhat similar to that of 'California Girls', and although the song descends into choral chanting a couple times along the way, in general it is still very much compatible with the girls-and-sunshine image of the Beach Boys of old. Same with 'Sloop John B', a folk-reworked-as-pop tune originally brought in by Al Jardine and recorded as early as mid-1965. Unsurprisingly, these were the two songs that remained in the live setlists for the longest time (along with 'God Only Knows' as a special showcase for Carl while Mike Love would listen to his beard grow).
Where I'm getting at is this: the crucial, perhaps, difference between the ultimately successful Pet Sounds and the ultimately not-as-convincing Smile was that Pet Sounds shows the steady hand of an unusual, but generally sane artist, whereas Smile, by all accounts, would be the documented history of the artist's gradual — in fact, rather fast — descent into madness: a thing that easily happens to the best of us when we attempt to bite off far more than our jaw-stretching capacity allows us physically. Among other things, it is a lot of fun to look at Brian's photos from 1966, like the ones included in the original artwork of the album or the endless CD reissues: note how deeply involved, how self-assured, and how Europeanishly-cool he always looks with that haircut and those dark frames. (Actually, it all makes him look like Roy Orbison, but that does not contradict the generalization). Already in 1967, that coolness starts to dissipate, frequently replaced by vacant or frightened stares into open space. Creepy — but somewhat expectable.
So is this «the best» Beach Boys album? Or «the best» album of all time? Or, at least, a one-of-a-kind achievement that gave America its own Great God of Pop Music, to show all these British ruffians where they truly belonged? I don't think one can answer this question directly without getting politicized and ostracized. It already gave and continues to give plenty of happy fodder for all the «Beatles vs. Beach Boys», «UK vs. US» etc. discussions that are never conclusive because it is never clear what exactly is the object, or what exactly are the criteria for the discussions. It's a great way for normal people to turn into obsessive trolls overnight.
I would just say this: On its own terms, Pet Sounds is perfection. All of the songs make sense, all of the songs have grappling power, all of the songs fit together and give a high resolution mirror image of the sensitive, dynamic mind of their creator, in which optimism and melancholia dwell on adjacent floors and frequently visit each other for a friendly drink. In the historical context, Pet Sounds is one of the major achievements of 1966, hardly a slouch year for great music. And in the context of California boy Brian Wilson's artistic growth — it captures that perfect moment when the teen soul suddenly finds itself capable of thinking like an adult, all the while retaining its teen character.
But in order to get the most sensual pleasure out of listening to the album, one does have to have a high tolerance level for similar-sounding, occasionally «mushy» music in which strings, chimes, and organs are always more important than electric guitars, and steady kick-snare drum patterns and head-bob-inducing basslines are sidestepped in favor of, uh, far more gentle sounds. And I can understand people who would irately claim that an album like that simply isn't qualified for the title of «best ever», and that they'd sooner give the title to a Mötörhead record (at one point in time, I actually shared something close to that position).
In other words, the formula of Pet Sounds is a formula: after the first side is over, the second side sounds fairly predictable — we already know most of the places to which Brian Wilson has been, even if there is no problem whatsoever about freely and happily revisiting them once again on the next six tracks. But I must say that I openly envy those whose idea of total, limitless beauty happens to coincide with Brian Wilson's: for these people, Pet Sounds will be the soundtrack to their life, an endless source of support and inspiration. (Just for the record, for myself such a soundtrack, ever since childhood, has been George Harrison's All Things Must Pass — another soul outbreak from a tormented loner tempered by impeccable production values, but one that has always hit closer to home in my particular case). And, want it or not, even if my own wavelength never quite coincided with Brian's on this album — shouldn't a song like 'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times' be the collective frickin' anthem for all of us, the few pathetic souls in this world who have actually heard Pet Sounds? Aw, thumbs up.
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