Recorded and released in 1966, not long after the sunny, textural experiments of California Girls, Pet Sounds, aside from its importance as Brian Wilson’s evolutionary compositional masterpiece, was the first rock record that can be considered a “concept album”; from first cut to last we were treated to an intense, linear personal vision of the vagaries of a love affair and the painful, introverted anxieties that are the wrenching precipitates of the unstable chemistry of any love relationship. This trenchant cycle of love songs has the emotional impact of a shatteringly evocative novel, and by God if this little record didn’t change only the course of popular music, but the course of a few lives in the bargain. It sure as hell changed its creator, Brian, who by 1966 had been cruising along at the forefront of American popular music for four years, doling out a constant river of hit songs and producing that tough yet mellifluous sound that was the only intelligent innovation in pop music between Chuck Berry and the Beatles.
Previous Beach Boy albums were also based on strong conceptual images — the dream world of Surf, wired-up rods with metal flake paint, and curvaceous cuties lounging around the (implicitly suburban and affluent) high school. It was music for white kids; they could identify with the veneration of the leisure status which in 1963 was the ripest fruit of the American dream. It wasn’t bullshit, you could dance your silly brains away to “Get Around” or “Fun Fun Fun” if you felt like it.
But Pet Sounds….nobody was prepared for anything so soulful, so lovely, something one had to think about so much. It is by far the best album Brian has yet delivered, and it paradoxically began the decline in mass popularity that still plagues this band. It also reflected Brian’s preoccupation with pure sound. In fact, the credits on the new edition of Pet Sounds read: “This recording is pressed in monophonic sound, the way Brian cut it.” It’s a weird little touch. The tone of it is so mythologizing it sounds as if Brian were no longer among us.
The love songs of Pet Sounds begin with the gorgeous theme of frustrated mid-Sixties blueballed adolescence, “wouldn’t it be nice to stay together, hold each other close the whole night through?…” That question lays the entire premise of the album immediately in front of us. “You Still Believe In Me,” with Brian’s lovely harpsichord playing, carries the affair a little farther, through and past indescretion into the reconciliation of “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” sung in Brians’ wrenching, melting butter falsetto with the gentle lyrics of Tony Asher, Brian’s major collaborator in this period, at the top of their form. There are also the perceptive songs of anxiety, malaise and self-doubt — “That’s Not Me,” “I’m Waiting For the Day,” a tribute to the larger-than-life echo chambers of Phil Spector, the striking choral ensemble of “God Only Knows” and the angst-laden “I Know There’s An Answer.” Each of these tunes has its own singular flavor, one little brilliant touch — the slur of a baritone saxophone or the luxuriant tintinnabulation of Brian’s omnipresent chimes — that puts it apart from the body of the whole record.
The Pet Sounds story ends unhappily, or at least stoically. “Here Today” is an angry blaster, and portrays a pessimism and disaffection that jars with the previous optimism. It is the end of the affair, and our persona is clearly pissed. “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is an expression of general disenchantment with just about everything, rendered politely of course, in a low-key manner. These two tunes, like the rest of the record are great not only because of the lush, dramatic arrangements, but because the strangest of the brothers Wilson has his psyche on the pulse of universal subjectivity. Being extremely aware of fantasy himself, Brian knows how most people think.
Three cuts are impossibly dated and don’t even enter into consideration: a boring cover of “Sloop John B.” that had some success as a single (with all the genius on this record, Capitol Records chose this as the single because it probably sounded truest to preconceptions about the Beach Boy “formula”). The two instrumentals, “Pet Sounds” and “Let’s Go Away For Awhile,” are pretty mood pieces and that’s all.
The final episode of Pet Sounds is “Caroline, No,” three minutes of heartbreaking pathos, a haunting ballad that is the guts of hapless melancholy, the hollow and incredulous feeling at the loss of a lover.
Ah, Pet Sounds. Ah, the wonderful 20 second trailer right out of Thomas Hart Benton with the barking dogs, the signal bells and at the railroad crossing as a fast diesel roars by towards where you are not, the barking in the distance again and then silence. Ah, Brian.