Beach Boys, The
God Only Knows Where We'd Be Without This
Sooner or later Brian Wilson had to grow up. Summer might last forever, but at some point slinging surf music was gonna get old. To grow as an artist, it seemed, he needed to get around "I Get Around." This carefully sculpted and lavishly arranged set of songs is Wilson's most "mature" music-making—and represents a high-water mark of pop craft in general. Pet Sounds is the California sunshine of the early Beach Boys as seen through darker lenses by people just old enough to remember when life really was carefree. Its characters have adult knowledge of the world's cruelties—they've been burned in love and are contending with what it means to be responsible. Bittersweetness creeps around the edges of the gliding harmonies and featherweight lead vocals. The Beach Boys' once purely exuberant melodies are now etched with poignant brushstrokes.
From the opening track, a vision of romantic bliss so idealized it has to be fantasy ("Wouldn't It Be Nice"), Pet Sounds travels the road between youthful hope and nostalgia—with brief detours for cautionary tales about drugs (the bonus track "Hang On to Your Ego") and meditations on the mysteries of life ("God Only Knows"). Though it's somewhat unified in terms of text, Pet Sounds is remarkably diverse in the orchestration department—virtually every track comes with its own set of instrumental touches, from the chiming bells of "Wouldn't It Be Nice" to the kettle drums that frame "Sloop John B."
Though Pet Sounds did have several charting singles ("Caroline No," "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Sloop John B"), the record didn't get massive promotion from Capitol; incredibly, it took until 2000 for the album to reach the million-copies-sold plateau. Despite those figures, Pet Sounds (and the later single "Good Vibrations," which Wilson initially intended as part of this album) has influenced just about everyone who makes pop music.
It's also an illustration of the reciprocal nature of pop inspiration: Wilson cited the Beatles' Rubber Soul, released in December 1965, as a primary catalyst for Pet Sounds. In turn, Paul McCartney has said that he was deeply affected by Pet Sounds during the making of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. McCartney was once quoted as saying, "I figure no one is educated musically 'til they've heard Pet Sounds."
Released: 1966, Capitol (Reissued 1999)
Key Tracks: "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Sloop John B."
Catalog Choice: Brian Wilson Presents Smile.
Next Stop: The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
Book Page: 55