Before The Beatles truly blossomed, The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” represented one of the most seismic shifts in the rapidly evolving landscape of popular music during the latter half of the ’60s.
Brian Wilson’s magnum opus turned 50 years old May 16, and the record remains a remarkable listening experience even half a century out. Though The Beach Boys’ name is attached, Wilson was the predominant creative force behind the conception of the album.
Released to underwhelming critical and commercial reactions, “Pet Sounds” has grown on people in the past 50 years. The album was key to the development of psychedelic and progressive rock and is considered by many to be one of the greatest albums in the history of popular music. The album’s legacy and influence, as well as its obsession with love, heartbreak and the complexity of human emotion, has extended well into the 21st century.
Last year, a biopic on Wilson entitled “Love and Mercy,” starring Paul Dano and John Cusack, received considerable critical praise. In addition, Wilson, now 73, began his “Pet Sounds 50th Anniversary World Tour” last month, which marks the final performances of the album’s music.
A striking alteration on the band’s more radio-friendly sound, the album’s conception began in 1964, when Wilson suffered a severe panic attack on a flight following a television performance. Wilson’s damaged psyche was his excuse to forgo touring with his band mates and instead focus more intently on songwriting and recording.
In 1965, Wilson formed a collaboration with Tony Asher, who ultimately became the self-described “interpreter” of Wilson’s thematic direction for “Pet Sounds.” Asher put into words the sentiments Wilson wanted to convey with each song. Following Wilson’s satisfaction with “You Still Believe in Me,” the album’s second track, he decided Asher was the right fit.
Asher also showed Wilson “Rubber Soul,” an album by The Beatles, which became a major inspiration for the album due to its absence of filler tracks. In turn, the Fab Four would echo the influence of “Pet Sounds” two albums later with the avant-garde pop touchstone “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Wilson hired The Wrecking Crew, a group of session musicians famous for their work with producer Phil Spector, to record the album’s instrumentation. Backed with ravishing orchestral arrangements, “Pet Sounds” possesses a childlike, carnival-esque tone. The experimental instruments — from bicycle bells and dog barks to harpsichords and French horns — relay subtle psychedelic qualities, as Wilson dabbled in mind-altering substances at the time.
Considered one of the first true examples of a concept album, the ambitious revision of pop music standards in “Pet Sounds” is strung together by introspection and disillusioned musings on love and dejection. Wilson bears his soul in both confession and vocal performance.
Juxtaposing loneliness with dissections of romance enhances the sensation behind his ideas through contrast. The clear-eyed, unabashed honesty behind the words of “Pet Sounds” — especially on the subject of despondence — is met with vibrant symphonic marvels from Wilson’s arrangements and sweet melodies.
Many of the songs form meaning by discussing the foibles of romance. Though a frequent topic of pop music, Wilson manages to find fresh perspectives. In “That’s Not Me,” which analyzes the price of independence, Wilson candidly admits, “I could try to be big in the eyes of the world/What matters to me is what I could be to just one girl.” But the mawkishness that can seem overwhelming is always offset by the maturity supporting each observation.
Paul McCartney’s favorite song and masterful side-two opener “God Only Knows” takes a hopeful stance in the face of romance’s inevitable end. “Here Today” flips the point of view and is directed towards a naïve man in the midst of newfound love, “Right now you think that she’s perfection/This time is really an exception,” Mike Love sings. He was the band member least receptive to Wilson’s direction in sound.
Featuring some of the most resplendent harmonizations on “Pet Sounds,” the opener, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” neatly captures the innocence at the heart of Wilson’s creative voice. “I wish that every kiss was never-ending,” Wilson divulges as a young lover yearning for the freedom of adult life.
Regardless of the legacies behind masterpieces like “God Only Knows” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the album’s most underrated offering is “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder).”
The song’s chord progressions suggest a mood both surreal and gentle, and the lyrics touch on a beauty that cannot be described in words: “I can hear so much in your sighs/And I can see so much in your eyes,” Wilson begins. The track depicts a lovely silence between romantic companions and the fruitlessness of speaking during tender moments.
“Listen, listen, listen,” Wilson implores as the bridge’s swelling strings lean back into refrain once again. Using inverted chords and challenging progressions, the peaceful churn of “Don’t Talk” is a microcosm of “Pet Sounds’” complexities.
But in terms of lyrical virtuosity, the most astounding portrait of romance is the wistful “Caroline, No,” the album’s stunning closer. As a lamentation on a loving partner slowly becoming a stranger and the entropy of ardor, a line like, “It’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die,” perfectly communicates the bittersweet feeling of losing a former flame.
Couplets like, “Where did your long hair go/Where is the girl I used to know,” and, “Could I ever find in you again/The things that made me love you so much then,” offer rhetorical questions to devastating truths. The simple loss of innocence is emblematic of the essence of Wilson’s vision.
Other highlights include “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” which perfectly portrays disassociation from one’s era and company. Also the two instrumental cuts — the title track and “Let’s Go Away for Awhile” — offer colorful, anticipatory tonics to the oft pensive nature of the rest of the album.
Utilizing complex harmonies, inverted chords, challenging progressions, key changes and a host of inspired instrumental choices, “Pet Sounds” quietly widened the scope of pop music during popular musics’ most important decade.
“Pet Sounds” paradoxically took rock music forward by anchoring it with classical sensibilities. The music, coupled with its recognizable yet deeply idiosyncratic songwriting, sounds just as radical today as it must have 50 years ago.