The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds finally clicked with me

Dog-Doo With Daniel: This isn’t the kind of album that wallops you over the head with its eccentricities the way Smile or Sgt. Pepper or FutureSex/LoveSound do.
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Brian Wilson, Pet Sounds

Pet Sounds finally clicked with me. I’d liked it for a long time, don’t get me wrong, but having heard Smile first I was inclined to think of Pet Sounds as a practice run — Brian Wilson applying his antipop ideas within the context of radio pop rather than spinning them into something else. When I thought back on it, my mind generally landed on either the hits, beaten to death in my mind (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows”), or the lesser songs that for me spoiled its standing as a masterpiece (“Sloop John B”, “That’s Not Me”, “Caroline No” — the latter two of which has grown on me, for reasons I’ll get to).

You might be aware of the latest music-nerd chain meme: give your friend an album, ask them for the best, worst, most underrated, and most overrated tracks. Someone gave a dear friend of mine Pet Sounds, and he picked “You Still Believe In Me” as best. I thought to myself: how did that song go? I pressed play. I remembered the mumbling-and-piano-strings duet on the intro. I didn’t remember that horrifying chord that caps off the chorus (on “me.”) I’d never picked up on the bike bell. There were multitudes in this song I’d forgotten or failed to notice, and I started wondering how much else I’d missed.

I listened again. It wasn’t so much that I’d missed details as that I’d forgotten just what the songs sounded like, how many heaven-piercing high notes were on every song, how the chords twisted into forlorn and spooky shapes when you least expected them to. It’s certainly closer to the cute pop of their beach days than the unbound, avant-garde art rock of Smile, but what strange cute-beach-pop it was, and how rich with great ideas.

This isn’t the kind of album that wallops you over the head with its eccentricities the way Smile or Sgt. Pepper or FutureSex/LoveSounds or many of the other great milestones in behind-the-boards auteurism do. What’s remarkable about this record is how well those eccentricities work, and I suspect that’s part of why Pet Sounds didn’t stun me the first few times I heard it. The bike bell and Coke cans and plucked piano strings are integrated so snugly into the mix it could take years to discover them. I suspect that even after repeated, intent listens, I still haven’t found all there is to be found on Pet Sounds.

Of course, the production isn’t the only thing to praise about Pet Sounds. This was one of the first truly existential pop albums, part of a lineage that started with Dylan’s seepage into rock. Rubber Soul, the acid-tongued masterpiece of Dylan’s best pop acolyte Lennon, was a major influence on Pet Sounds. But while Lennon dealt with themes like love gone wrong and aging and death and lost innocence with cool cynicism, Wilson was terrified of them. The language is accordingly more guileless, less pleased with itself, more prone to encapsulating big ideas in simple, childish language.

Take “That’s Not Me”. Before I rediscovered the record, I mainly remembered the awful “city/pretty” rhyme towards the end, which is probably my least favorite pop rhyme save for those endless “-tion” lists white reggae singers are so fond of. Now I recall the simple refrain of “that’s not me” — alone in the world, the song’s city-bound hero looks inward and concludes he’s still a child, which his parents all but confirm in the letter they send. On a similar song, Dylan or Lennon might have chastised themselves for being mama’s boys. Wilson’s just scared and homesick, and the song’s all the more poignant for it.

Songwriting in the Internet age is hyper-literal. It’s a trend I’m not sure I like. Big, simply-phrased statements like “I had to prove that I could make it alone but that’s not me” take more work to parse than something as literal as the oft-quoted Car Seat Headrest lyric “last Friday I took acid and mushrooms, I did not transcend, I felt like a walking piece of shit.” The Headrest lyric hits you in the gut with a pang of relatability while charming you with its cleverness; you get it instantly. The Wilson lyric seems innocent until you figure out what he’s saying, then it hits twice as hard — and we feel worse for the narrator, anyway, because he’s airing his vulnerabilities instead of caulking them up with cynicism.

It’s a deceptive simplicity, and I think that’s also a lot of the reason Pet Sounds went over my head the first few times. Though I’m skeptical of praising albums because of the breakthroughs they made in their own time, it’s worth remembering that Pet Sounds came from a time when pop was more innocent and the scope of what could make it on record was a lot narrower. In its time, it must have sounded bleak and terrifying. Now that dozens of pop auteurs have come and gone, many drawing inspiration directly from this thing, it doesn’t sound like a shocking statement so much as a sad, poignant little pop record that’s a lot weirder and more brilliant than it might let on initially.

I’m still not entirely sure Pet Sounds is a masterpiece. It’s still flawed; I think most of the classic Beatles albums are more consistent and fun to listen to, and Lennon and McCartney’s pop songs are better pop songs anyway while fitting in just as much content sonically (if not always emotionally). I still hate “Sloop John B”; I don’t think there’s a Beatles song as bad, and it might be the worst song on any great album I’ve heard. And it’s awfully languid at times. I wish it had more peppy pop songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, though admittedly peppy pop songs aren’t the point of Pet Sounds.

But one of my major original gripes slid away upon my latest listen. I initially found “Caroline No” a bit sexist; she cuts her hair, it breaks Brian’s heart, he laments “it’s so sad to watch a sweet thing die” before singing the chorus. It’s still suspect for sure, but listening again, I interpreted that “no” less as a command than as a “noooo” in the cartoon sense, a cry of helplessness as Caroline’s aging reminds him how time slips away. As the song fades, the album ends virtuosically with a cold sound collage of clanging metal and barking dogs — a bleak blast of reality, with no music in sight.

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