There are very few albums that come with such consistent praise and appreciation as today’s selection. “Pet Sounds”, the iconic triumph for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, is consistently considered to be one of the most influential and highest rated albums in modern music. Rated #2 on all three versions of Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, including the one I used as the initial baseline for this project, it really is a remarkable record and one that continued to push and challenge many other artists to strive for more.
By early 1966, Brian Wilson was no longer touring and performing with the Beach Boys. As he fell further into the dual abyss of mental health challenges and substance abuse, his only escape was the recording studio. Fueled and inspired, as many were, by the Beatles album “Rubber Soul”, Wilson set out with the full intention of creating what he wanted to be the greatest album of all time. Working primarily with lyricist Tony Asher, Brian created the soundtrack for this project. Unlike the early days of the band, instead of a simple sound of guitars, bass, keyboard and drums, Brian embraced an intensely orchestrated and highly produced sound while emulating Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound”, working with dozens of studio musicians on horns, strings, keyboards, percussion, and anything else that he could add to the blend.
So, was this a Brian Wilson album or a Beach Boys album? One could argue it was both. Ultimately, the band was included in the project, primarily for backing vocals and one highly notable lead vocal performance. At it’s peak, this is Brian and the group at their very best. The album opener, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, both in word and certainly in song, is one of my favorite vocal arrangements of all time. The harmony blends and contributions from the group, mixed in with Brian’s lamenting lead, are truly phenomenal. If you want a different and equally powerful perspective, you can find on YouTube this and other songs from the album with the vocal tracks only, with all instruments stripped out. It is from this perspective I gained even more appreciation for my second favorite song on the album, “God Only Knows”, featuring the surprisingly beautiful lead vocals of Carl Wilson. If you listen to the outro, especially on the vocal-only version, you will be amazed by the precision and beauty of their harmonies.
As you can imagine, the reaction within the core group to this dramatic change in direction was mixed to say the least. Brian’s brothers understood the magnitude and beauty of the project, even if they knew their relative contributions were less impactful. Mike Love and Al Jardine both objected to this departure from format, also seeing their relative place in the group on the decline.
The rest of the album is slightly more complicated to me. “Sloop John B” is a well-known song, but it has never fully resonated with me. I will say that listening to this album multiple times as I did, helped to further my appreciation of this song. Many of the other songs are what I would call a challenging listen. I go back and forth between being overwhelmed by the entirety of sound Brian delivers in each of these tracks, and how big of a creation this was, and also looking a bit awkwardly for the simplicity and hook of some of their earlier music. I love “You Still Believe In Me”, which quickly jolts you into realizing this is something different altogether from simple surf music. I think another song that captures that same melancholy sadness and slow harmonic burn is “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”. At the end of the day, I stand convicted that “Pet Sounds” is an incredibly accurate snapshot of exactly who and what Brian Wilson was during that time. An absolute genius song and sound creator, while at the same time one who endured great sadness, pain, isolation and struggle. Wilson and his many contributors, including the original band, ultimately delivered this triumph of an album that shattered all previous preconceived notions of the Beach Boys while leaving many searching for exactly that comfort while listening to this album.