Old/Newish Albums: The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”

LP_OUT-P1_output.pdfI might’ve gotten in over my head with this one. Pet Sounds consistently ranks incredibly high whenever a music publication makes a Best Albums Ever list; like Top 10 high. What would possess me to review an album that is generally thought of as one of the best in modern pop music?

Either way, here we are. Pet Sounds was the brainchild primarily of Brian Wilson as an indirect response to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. Wilson was a founding member of The Beach Boys and had actually quit touring with the rest of the band to work on this album. If it’s any indication what an impact this album had, Wilson suffered a near-total mental breakdown trying to write the follow up, Smile (which ultimately never got released).

Lyrically, it’s an incredibly introspective record, and considering the majority of the writing was done by Wilson, it’s a pretty harrowing view of himself he’s sharing with the listener. There is so much insecurity in the lyrics, so much self-doubt. It creates a very somber and melancholic atmosphere; these are vulnerable and intimate lyrics that communicate the kinds of emotional issues that so many of us have and can’t deal with well.

What’s completely bizarre about it is how opposite that is from what the music creates. A lot of the music on this record sounds exuberantly happy. One of the reasons this was such a difficult album for me to write about is that it legitimately doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard. It’s like a SoCal bubble gum acid trip; a cacophony of pianos and cellos and theremin and actual pets and percussion and beautiful choral harmonies. This doesn’t sound like pop music to me, especially not pop music from 1966. My favorite description I’ve read of the sound on this record is “baroque pop.” It’s so well orchestrated, sounds upon sounds that don’t seem like they should coalesce and yet they exist. Pet Sounds reminds me a bit of the psychedelic pop music from bands like the 5th Dimension; Age Of Aquarius and all of that. But that album had an undercurrent of black soul music that is notably absent. The weird thing is that while Pet Sounds certainly doesn’t sound black to me, it doesn’t necessarily sound that white to me. It’s an album that defies genre-fication.

One opinion I held about the record before listening to it for this series, and an opinion I still hold, is that it’s hard for me to parse out individual songs. Obviously, the really well-known songs are immediately recognizable (“God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”). But my point is that this is an incredibly coherent album, one that is streamlined very intentionally. Pet Sounds is a concept album, not lyrically, but rather production-wise. The whole thing sounds like the whole thing. The songs flow so well from one to another, and because they break out of the confines of traditional mid-’60s sunshine pop music, it’s easy for the demarcations between songs to blur. Melodies and chord progressions and vocal stagings change with whimsy that it’s hard to pin the music down. It’s like a butterfly on mushrooms.

This isn’t a bad thing by any means. It just creates a most unique listening experience.

For my money, I enjoy about half the album. In general, the slower ballads don’t groove with me (with the exception of “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)” which was absolutely heartbreaking in its beauty), but I had an appreciation and enjoyed listening to the more upbeat tunes like “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows.”

Pet Sounds is a great album. It’s cohesiveness makes it difficult for me to enjoy it as anything but a full album and while that was important contextually to the album, its weirdness as a whole album makes it lose a little bit of its punch for me. I could easily listen to “God Only Knows” singularly and enjoy it, but I wouldn’t pop on “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” or “You Still Believe In Me” and listen to only those songs. This album is a tough nut to crack but it’s worth the effort.

Top 3 Tunes:

  1. God Only Knows
  2. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)
  3. Sloop John B
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