Two really important things:
1. This is a good album. Undeniably so.
2. I don’t love this album.
History lessons will tell you that America needed to be a superpower in every aspect possible: they couldn’t really sit still and let a phenomenon called “British invasion” happen if they could help it. So John F. Kennedy, handsomest president there ever was, if you’re into things like youth and looks, commissioned the Beach Boys to be America’s answer to the Beatles. And as strange as the analogy seems, they were sort of in an arm’s race with each other: the cohesiveness of Rubber Soul inspired Pet Sounds, which inspired the album-to-end-albums-ness of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Clubs Band, which…instilled insanity.
Part of the reason why Pet Sounds is so canonized is because quite frankly, despite being a household name, the Beach Boys only ever released one album that stands a chance against the best Beatles albums—this one. I remember shortly after having downloaded Pet Sounds and my then-girlfriend, upon noticing the new inclusion on my Ipod during a drive home, she remarked, “Don’t be surprised if it doesn’t sound like any other Beach Boys album.” Well the joke was on her, because I hadn’t heard any other Beach Boys album at the time. She was right—she often was—and people who decide to tackle the Beach Boys’ rather extensive discography by going for their most canonized record first probably shouldn’t do so. It’s just going to set you up for a disappointment when you hear any other Beach Boys record. Take my word and start with Today! and work your way here.
But that’s only part of the reason. Pet Sounds is a pop album that even the people who loathe pop for whatever stupid reason they could come up with can appreciate because each of these songs are (relatively) complex. Seriously, if you took a look at who contributes to this album, that’s a list of men that even the most disgusting and unnecessary of gangbangs couldn’t compete with. Case in point is “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” complete with the briefest of introductions that no one can figure out what instrument produced. In the words of George Starostin, “it doesn’t take more than one minute before the song shifts into an entirely different mode – soft, drumless, and completely dominated by the Beach Boys’ “choirboy” tendencies. Sure it regains the tempo afterwards – only to “lose it” one more time with one more gorgeous vocal section, then pick it up again and quickly scramble off into the fadeout”—all in a matter of 2 minutes and 30 seconds!
But that’s only part of the reason. Very few albums come close to the universality of Pet Sounds. In why “God Only Knows” was the best song of the 60’s according to Pitchfork, Dominique Leone wrote, “’God Only Knows’ is the kind of song that’s almost impossible for me to talk about divorced from the way it makes me feel: sad, in love, honestly grateful, but also a little hopeless.” Actually, you could stretch that to cover every song here. Optimists can relate to Pet Sounds because each of these tracks bounce in a way that exuberant summer soundtracks ought to. Pessimists can relate to Pet Sounds because all of these lyrics were practically made for them. “I Wasn’t Made For These Times?” “That’s Not Me?” The dramatic pause before the “I want to cry”’s in the coda of “You Still Believe Me?” The youthful frustration of “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older / Then we wouldn’t have to wait so long” that opens the first side, the utterly depressing reality that “I may not always love you” that opens the second side? These are anthems made for you to sing-along to in the bedroom while no one else is around, and somehow, they work just fine at a party too. Because no one says shit about “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” if they want to live.
But no, I don’t like it. Brian Wilson set out to make a masterpiece, it was his fucking mission statement, seen in the quotation, “Rubber Soul was a collection of songs…that somehow went together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed. I said, “That’s it. I really am challenged to do a great album.” I could be wrong, but I’m almost 100% sure that masterpieces happens spontaneously, serendipitously, sporadically and a whole slew of other adverbs that start with s that operate synonymously (I am on fire). As a result of that, a lot of the periphery songs (the ones that weren’t chosen as singles) are self-consciously complex—and sometimes, unnaturally so. Brian Wilson’s answer to Phil Spector’s wall of sound approach was to throw as many instruments at Pet Sounds as possible and in the words of CapnMarvel, “Brian spent months and months building layers of session orchestras on top of some basic rhythm and guitar tracks, as well as all manner of various other instrumentation (glockenspiels, wood blocks, chimes) and gimmicky sound effects (his ‘pet sounds’…Coke cans, bicycle bells, Carl’s skull) that people love to talk about when describing this record. Listen, if you’re impressed by the fact that he used a Coke can as a percussion instrument, apparently you’ve never spent a few minutes around a toddler.” As far as I’m concerned, the (probably) “Drive My Car”-inspired bicycle horns almost single-handedly sabotage the coda of “You Still Believe Me” (otherwise, the most perfect minute on the album), “I want to cry…BEEP BEEP!” Who the fuck needs them?
It’s a shame that Brian Wilson apparently has no intention of writing simple pop songs anymore because up until this point, it was one of his strengths. It’s telling that Brian Wilson was completely unmoved by “Sloop John B” until Al Jardine threw in more chords because obviously three of them isn’t enough for the Beach Boys. Hey! “Caroline, No” too simple for you? Fuck that, let’s throw in thirty seconds of dogs and boat noises, the critics will go crazy. “That’s Not Me” only has one vocal hook, you say? Fuck that, we’ll write a second vocal hook and add it at the end. “I Know There’s An Answer” only has one vocal hook, you say? Find someone to throw in a solo. Bitches love solos on Beach Boys’ tracks. We only have 30 minutes worth of material? Rubber Soul had 35 minutes, you say? Fine, I’ll write some instrumentals. Bitches love Beach Boys’ instrumentals. The best example of this rant is “Here Today.” From a technical standpoint, the instrumental middle is impressive, because they manage to squeeze out several different melodies in a short span of time that have nothing to do with each other seamlessly. But, unfortunately, every time the track hits the 1:47 mark and goes into “Eye of the Tiger” mode, I wish it climaxed naturally. Or climaxed at all, even.
Anyway, for fear that my deconstruction of a record that’s loved by so many people will cause them to find my exact address and march to my house with sharp weapons, I’ll end on a positive note. “Sloop John B” is perfect. Yeah, I said it. It’s unfairly picked on because a) it’s the only track here that’s a cover, b) it’s a little awkwardly placed in terms of track sequencing (I think it should’ve followed “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” instead of rounding out the first side, but maybe that would’ve made the album seem like it blew its load too early) c) it’s the only track on the album that reveals itself immediately. As for the first point, the Beach Boys, for lack of better words, Beach Boys-ify the track such that it doesn’t matter. As for the second point, “Sloop John B” fits in fine thematically with the rest of the album. Yeah, it’s about a disastrous voyage, but the most poignant lines, “I feel so broke up / I wanna go home,” can be transposed to fit any scenario, really, ynless you’ve never felt out of place in your life, in which case, I wouldn’t trust you to watch over my imaginary children for half a minute while I use the washroom. As for the third point? Neither did “Do You Wanna Dance?” or “Dance, Dance, Dance” and no one says shit about those if they want to live. Have you heard these vocal harmonies? Have you heard the sheer bounce of the trombone? Who doesn’t like these things?
Oh, and I like the album cover. Who doesn’t like feeding animals?