During the earliest writing sessions for Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson turned to his then-wife and said, “I’m gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!” Inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, a record that he believed to have no-filler, Wilson wanted to top it, to bring a new maturity and depth to pop song craft. I like to think he accomplished all of his goals, and that quote is true for me.
I firmly believe that Pet Sounds is the greatest album ever made, a work exquisite artistry and beauty. The type of immaculate artwork that comes along once in a generation, if you’re lucky. Listening to this album is the closest I ever get to prayer, it touches me that deeply.
I distinctly remember my first listening experience with Pet Sounds. Having been a casual fan of their work, I knew of the Beach Boys mostly as surf-pop enthusiasts with song after song about girls, cars, and the mythology of California, and I wanted to check out more of their work. I knew this was frequently thrown around as their best album, and one of the all-time greats.
I bought it on a whim, then went home and listened to it with my headphones in. Then I listened to it on a loop for about two hours that night, or whatever five listens through the album would total out to. I knew it something special, I knew it was touching something deep within my soul, and I wanted to crack its various mysteries and charms. Just a never-ending loop of its symphonic textures, enchanted and thrilled by the found sounds, and the sheer beauty of it all. It was incredibly fulfilling. I didn’t want to end.
Pet Sounds is a profound look into Brian Wilson’s fracturing psyche, and perfectly captures the moment when teenage despair transforms into adult lamentations. Even the love songs have a twinge of sadness to them. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” fires out the gate with a rush of sugary Beach Boys harmonies, bubblegum pop, and puppy love lyrics, and then you listen closer. The title contains an unseen question. It’s the sound of someone trying to convince themselves it would be nice for all of these things to occur.
This dichotomy is just one of the vast riches found on Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson created an entire musical universe out of professional rivalry with the Beatles, inspiration from (and envy of) Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, his deep admiration for Gershwin, and the voices/noises residing inside his head. There’s so much to discuss and process in listening to the album, whether it’s your first or hundredth, that it’s almost comically easy to zip past some of the smaller scale golden nuggets buried within.
The harmonies are so densely layered, the orchestrations so new, the arrangements so luxurious, that it’s easy to skip over just what they’re singing when it all converges into such a gorgeous package. But really pay attention to what’s being expressed here, and the songs somehow turn ever more glorious and vibrant, more melancholic and tortured. Look at how Wilson builds a bigger, better, more ornate Wall of Sound on songs like “I’m Waiting for the Day” and “Sloop John B.”
Although not much comes close to matching the strength and beauty of “God Only Knows,” a song that Paul McCartney has called one of the greatest pop songs ever written. And he should know a thing or two about writing a great pop song. The lyrical melancholia of “God Only Knows” clashes with the vocal harmonies in sublime tension. In an album populated entirely by pretty love songs, “God Only Knows” emerges from the pack as something divinely blessed and inspired.
Pet Sounds didn’t sound like anything else in 1966, and in many ways, it still doesn’t sound like anything else from our time either. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulders)” finds a way for the beat to swoop down in a way that sounds like the entire track is sighing. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is self-reflexive about not only the album, a commercial disappointment vindicated by history, but Wilson, as no lyric better summarizes him, and this album by extension, than “sometimes I feel very sad.”
Then there’s everything wonderful and strange about “Caroline, No.” The album’s closer, “Caroline, No” finds Wilson playing with tone colors and sounds that take it into a space-age pop song. It’s eccentric, it’s striking, it’s animated and imaginative, and it’s wistful and mournful. “Caroline, No” is everything that makes Pet Sounds a masterpiece in roughly three minutes.
DOWNLOAD: “God Only Knows”