Ranking the best albums of the twentieth century, Rolling Stone placed Pet Sounds, the 1966 album by The Beach Boys, second only to The Beatles’ Sgt Peppers’ Lonely Hearts Club Band. In the case of ‘best’ films, albums or books there tends to be an aura of pretension, whereby the most renowned are the most complicated or challenging. They can be groundbreaking, but sometimes not entertaining.
Pet Sounds manages to expertly blend popular music with experimentation, combining the tight harmonies of ‘doo-wop’ with some of the most innovative arrangement and composition in modern music. In the summer of 1966, Brian Wilson, the band’s primary songwriter and composer chose to remain in the studio as his fellow bandmates set off on their tour of Japan. Their absence gave Wilson the creative freedom and space to transpose his darkest thoughts, fears and anxieties into a remarkably poignant yet enjoyable cohesive collection of music.
Wilson was primarily influenced by producer Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound.’ Using a broad range of instruments, the intention of this technique was to create a fuller, layered and complex musical quality that put the music at the forefront of the song. Wilson implemented this concept in Pet Sounds, most notably by layering every song with various different instrumental harmonies. Stating that the Forties and Fifties featured a rigid method of sound production, he forged new, intricate combinations of sound.
A wide array of instruments were used, including the glockenspiel, ukulele, accordion, Electro-Theremin, bongos, harpsichord, violin, viola, cello, trombone as well as the sounds of barking dogs and a train. Many of the tracks on the album feature unusual techniques which allegedly prompted surprise from many of the classically trained studio musicians who were tasked with carrying out Wilson’s vision. On “You Still Believe In Me,” Wilson opens the song by plucking the piano strings with hair clips. He also exploited the musical potential of several household items. On “Caroline, No,” the drum sound heard is actually an upside-down bottle.
Thematically, Pet Sounds explore Wilson’s battles with existentialism and anxiety (“I Know There’s An Answer,” “That’s Not Me”), drug culture (“Hang On To Your Ego,” “Sloop John B”) and his poignantly sincere belief in love (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “You Still Believe in Me”). The layered musicality has a two-fold effect as the album sways from the fantastical lullaby of songs like “Don’t Talk” where Wilson tenderly sings, “don’t talk, put your head on my shoulder,” to the nightmarish aural overload of “Sloop John B” where he reveals “this is the worst trip I’ve ever been on.”
“Wouldn’t it be Nice” is a deceptively upbeat song in which the singer unusually romanticizes the passing of time and getting older. It works wonderfully as the album’s opening track, setting the tone for the remainder of the album by blending intricate harmonies and instrumentation with lyrics of desire and lament. Wilson was very particular, even neurotic in his arrangement, allegedly spending hours in the studio until every minute aspect was perfect. The song opens with a now unmistakable harpsichord solo before coming to life when the drum kicks in and a cacophony of instruments can be heard.
There is an honesty and innocence to Wilson’s lyrics, especially on “God Only Knows,” which Paul McCartney once called “the best song ever written.” The simplicity of the tender arrangement at the beginning lets the sentiment take precedent before becoming louder, accentuating the emotion of the song.
Criticised for being too bleak and morose by his father and one-time manager, Wilson persisted with the song, arguing in defence of its raw spirituality. This was not the only song to be ill-received by those close to Wilson. Following their return from touring, the band was skeptical about the sombre tone of Pet Sounds, with Mike Love expressing particular distaste of Wilson’s experimental style and psychedelic themes.
The album was a big risk for a band most well known for having a good time with pretty girls on a beach in California, but Wilson was determined to transpose his thoughts and feelings into song. In “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” these feelings of isolation and existentialism can be most vividly heard as he sings, “I’m still looking for a place to fit in where I can call my own.” In hindsight, following the deterioration of Wilson’s mental health, these songs have even more poignancy. But it is exactly Wilson’s isolated perspective which made him such a visionary and genius.
Pet Sounds is quite simply a masterpiece of musical innovation which has profoundly influenced the indie genre, by expanding the limitations of pop and rock. While cheesy classics like “I Get Around” and “Surfin U.S.A” suggest that The Beach Boys are all fun and no substance, Pet Sounds achieves a vulnerable sincerity and mesmerising musicality which still, after fifty years, is recognised as one of the best albums ever made.