Monday, April 26, 2010

The Beach Boys 'Pet Sounds' is a classic...or is it?

When discussions take place about the greatest albums of the 1960s, the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds is usually included in the discussion. As Brian Wilson's last great production before he plunged into mental illness (although the remarkable single 'Good Vibrations' came out in the months after Pet Sounds), it is one of the most unusual albums of that period. It was an album that presented the band in a brand new light.

Up until this point, most fans liked them for the surf-and-fun songs they released. It was a utopia most male fans could only dream about: life at the beach with nothing but girls and cars. However, for those paying close attention, Wilson was already edging the band from that formula.

As early as 1963 on the Surfer Girl album, Wilson was already unveiling songs like 'In My Room.' In this song, there were no fantasies about girls and the beach. It was melancholy and projected vulnerability, which would be major themes on Pet Sounds three years later. He was finding security in isolation, but that was lost in the image the band was projecting in its big hits.

Pet Sounds actually begins with another version of utopia. The marvelous 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' studies marital bliss, but from this point, the cute love songs are gone. 'God Only Knows' brings intimacy rarely heard in a pop or rock song. When the album was re-released in 1990, Brian had this to say about the song: "Carl (Wilson) and I were into prayer. We'd pray together, and we prayed for light and guidance through the album. We kind of made it a religious ceremony." So, is 'God Only Knows' a romantic song or a spiritual song? You make the call.

There are lighter moments on the album like the goofy 'Sloop John B.' However, Brian was saying goodbye to the old Beach Boys. 'I Just Wasn't Made for These Times' communicates the isolation of not fitting in. 'Caroline, No' said good-bye to the types of girls sung about on previous Beach Boys songs.

Unsurprisingly, because of the departure from their successful formula, the album sold modestly and briefly peaked at number ten on the album chart. From this point, Brian faded away, and the band started resembling a Las Vegas act content on flogging the old hits.

I had heard the hype about this album for years, and finally broke down and bought it. When I listened to it the first time, I was not impressed. I tossed it into my pile of CDs and ignored it for a couple of years. Then, on a sleepless summer night, I gave it a second chance, and the music that came through my head phones touched me in a way few albums have.

Maybe I had grown a little older and could better understand the issues Brian Wilson was battling. I don't know. However, I do know this is a great album. In fact, I cannot think of an album quite like it.


Mark said...

I was also too young to appreciate Pet Sounds at first. But after maturing a little, I grew to love the music.
By the way, Pet Sounds was not Wilson's last great production before he became ill. After Pet Sounds he did Good Vibrations, and then worked on tracks for the SMiLE album. The original was not finished, but some tracks are on later BB albums. Wilson finally finished SMile in 2004, and there is likewise no album quite like it.

Chris said...

Mark, thanks for your comments. I have tweaked my original to include some of your insight.