This week’s column is about The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. This is a terrible thing to admit, but I’ve never listened to this album because I hate the cover so much. I don’t know what it is; probably something to do with that green and the animals and the idea of them actually sitting down and deciding this was the best photo and name for their album. Regardless, I genuinely avoided it for ages, but now I’ve decided to be mature and think about the music, man instead of the goats.
According to Rolling Stone (who put this record as Number 2 on their 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time) Pet Sounds was a massive influence for The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, while itself being an effort to top The Beatles’ Rubber Soul. The record is the brainchild of Brian Wilson, who considered releasing it as a solo project. Thankfully it was decided against, and - after a struggle with the label who were unimpressed with the record- Pet Sounds was released as The Beach Boys’ twelfth album (in four years!), featuring everything from bicycle bells to dog whistles. There were, obviously, massive hits from the album such as God Only Knows and Wouldn’t It Be Nice, but like all good albums, the record is so much more than the singles.
When most people think of The Beach Boys, they think of the California sunshine kids, singing about Good Vibrations and Surfin’ USA. Certainly, the former example is typical of what made the group so good: an intricate, epic layering of vocals and instrumentals. I’m sure a cappella groups across the country can thank them for that. This album, however, is somewhat of a departure from the classic summer themed songs that propelled The Beach Boys to the top. Instead, Pet Sounds is wistful and slightly melancholy, confessing Wilson’s doubts, pressures and worries. I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, for example, reads like the introspective Tumblr post of an angsty youth: “Every time I get the inspiration to go change things around / No one wants to help me look for places where new things might be found… Sometimes I feel very sad.” As I’ve mentioned before, I’m a sucker for sad lyrics and happy background music, so this is right up my street.
Throughout the album, the self-doubting lyrics such as these are juxtaposed with direct addresses to women, such as in Caroline, No. This is the saddest song musically: it’s slow, melancholic, plodding towards an end while Wilson laments Caroline changing and evolving without him; Caroline breaks his heart as he watched a “sweet thing die”. It’s a farewell, not to the person herself, but to everything he thought he knew about her. Not particularly romantic. What is romantic, however, is the hugely famous God Only Knows, which is one of my favourite songs of all time. The premise of this is so simple: God only knows what I’d be without you. Admittedly, it’s all a bit needy, but the sickly sweet lyrics are set on an upbeat backdrop that saves it from being too revolting.
As with their previous albums, Pet Sounds is an eclectic mix of styles and influences from jazz to doo-wop. Listening in 2016, it’s clearly a vintage album, with the overall sound created not being recreated by many (or any that I can think of) current groups. I wish it were, though, as the lonely lyrics and self-exploration somehow fit so perfectly with the incongruous expression of multiple voices, and the layering of instruments. Overall, this is an album that influenced many who were never quite able to recapture it. After listening, I forgive it for the horrendous cover (and the goats).