Pet Sounds, what I would consider one of the greatest and most important albums ever released, turned fifty years old on Monday. For me, this is a pretty monumental moment. Never mind the fact that I love the album, but Pet Sounds is what convinced me that Brian Wilson was worth studying, which then led me on a six-year-long writing/research project. Also, perhaps not coincidentally, Monday was also the one-year anniversary of my doctoral commencement ceremony.
What else is there to say about Pet Sounds that hasn’t already been beaten into the ground? A lot has been written about how different it is not only from the rest of the Beach Boys’ œuvere, but how different it is from virtually everything its contemporary.
For sure, Pet Sounds certainly is different from most other “rock-n-roll” from the mid-sixties. Brian Wilson has spoken at length about his admiration for Phil Spector, and the fact that “Be My Baby” is his favorite song. Orchestrationaly, Pet Sounds has more in common with the Ronettes and the Crystals than with Bob Dylan or the Beatles, as he was trying to emulate Spector whenever possible. (And most people agree, he “out-Spectored,” Spector)
As he tells it, Brian Wilson heard the Beatles’ Rubber Soul sometime in early-1966 and was blown away by what he heard. Instead of a collection of pop songs thrown together to make a 40-minute LP, Rubber Soul felt to him like a suite, a series of songs that simply “belonged together.” The word he often used to describe the album was that it was “spiritual,” which (I think) was his way of trying to describe the underlying connectedness of Rubber Soul’s songs. After hearing the album, the story goes, Brian was determined to do something the same ... but better.
So far, I think all of that commentary is fine. But, here is where a lot of people get Pet Sounds wrong, in my opinion. While I don’t think it is necessarily wrong to call Pet Sounds a “concept album” (though I don’t like all of the baggage that term carries), too many people think the album is a “concept album” because of some supposed narrative that is stretched across the album—and this, of course, is evidence of Brian Wilson’s “genius.” This is wrong for three reasons:
- The narrative folks say is there just isn’t. As I see it, I find some elements of a narrative arc, but it falls apart in too many places in the middle for it to be coherent in any way. If we are insistent on finding lyrical cohesion across Pet Sounds we should consider it as a song cycle revolving—quite loosely in some places (e.g. Sloop John B)—around the topic of love; anything more forces the album into a mold where it simply doesn’t fit.
- The lyrics aren’t Brian Wilson’s, which means that, were there an overarching narrative plan—a narrative concept, if you will—Brian Wilson doesn’t deserve credit for it; Tony Asher does.
- Brian has refuted the idea that Pet Sounds was a narrative concept album. Instead, he has called it a production concept album. Given the way the album sounds, and Brian’s fascination with Phil Spector, this makes a lot more sense. This is also what Brian found so inspiring in Rubber Soul: the “spiritual” qualities of the album.
When listening to Pet Sounds, you really need to let the sound of the album get inside of you. The orchestrations—odd combinations of instruments playing in unison and octaves juxtaposed with different, equally odd, groups playing beautiful countermelodies—are what make Pet Sounds great. That is what Brian Wilson was trying to do. Yes, some of the songs are great—God only knows what a beautiful song “God Only Knows” is—but it is the sound of the album that is the point.
First, the tympani hits as an intro. Not many (if any) other pop-music arrangers would go there. Second, listen to the English horn doubling the melody. Third, the prepared piano that connects the first two phrases is just about perfect. The flute countermelodies are also a perfect complement.
Notice the way the castanets echo in tempo and the way the slide guitar enters and exits so smoothly. And then there is that English horn again ...
It is hard to ignore how gorgeously Brian Wilson doubles the guitar with a glockenspiel. I love how active the bass line is (which is being doubled by both electric and upright basses). I also love how the bari sax enters at the end of the phrase and then continues to pulse on each beat, leaving the basses to continue dancing above it.
This one was actually released as a Brian Wilson solo track, but then included on the album. As such, there are no vocal harmonies—which, of course, is kind of weird for a Beach Boys song. The echo on the bongo (struck with a mallet) is so central to the piece, it practically defines it. I also find the intro interesting because he sets up what feels like a 4/4 groove, with the bongo hit on the “and” of beat three, but then the harpsichord enters in what would then be a slightly-late “and” of two in the next bar. Bizarre.
Of course, it would silly to ignore Brian Wilson’s great gift at melodic writing, his pseudo-contrapuntal textures most specifically. I think that the endings of both “You Still Believe In Me” and “God Only Knows” are some of the best examples of this. (And then there is that bicycle horn at the end of “You Still Believe In Me” ... )
Please, do me a favor, and really listen to Pet Sounds, all the way through, with headphones (and no distractions). I think you will agree, at the end, that this was time well spent.
If you are crazy, you could read my 291-page, in-depth analysis of Brian’s music from just after this period.