Genius

Listen to the full album here.

Pet Sounds, the Beach Boy’s eleventh album, was released in 1966 as a response to Brian Wilson’s enthusiasm for the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and his inability to tour sans drug-induced panic attacks. He focused his attention towards creating an album devoid of “filler” such as cover songs and comedy tracks, and perfecting arrangement and production. Even though it wasn’t a runaway hit when it was released, it is now regarded as one of the best rock albums in history.

For good reason, too. This is the stuff that dreams are made of. It’s sometimes called a “concept album”, as if each track needs the others in order to make any sort of artistic, cohesive sense. This isn’t the case, though. The album opens up with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” which is critically regarded as the track most akin to the Beach Boys’ pre-psychedelic work. From there, the album (namely, Brian Wilson) meanders into more pensive climes. This is a working album, because it’s work to figure out who you are, especially if you’re Brian Wilson.

The album makes little to no mention of cars, girls, or surfing. It’s just not that kind of machine. Is Caroline a California Girl like Rhonda presumably is? Maybe, but that’s not the trait that she is known for. You listen to the music and you know it’s the Beach Boys because of the unmistakable harmonies, but there is just very little tying it to their work from the early 60s. Tracks like “That’s Not Me” and “Put Your Head on My Shoulder” have an element of adolescence to them, but it’s the flip side of earlier tunes like “Be True to Your School” and “Little Deuce Coupe.”

I started out obsessing about this album a few weeks ago because of those stark differences between Pet Sounds and all the music of the Beach Boys that precedes it. I’m more a fan of the later music than of their early stuff. My thought was, if they had started with Pet Sounds and then shifted to their more bubble gummy surfer music, we would say that they had regressed or jumped the shark (an anachronistic way to describe it since the Fonz wouldn’t pull that feat until the mid-70s.) I wanted to write all about how I can’t waste my time listening to their older stuff when such goodness is there to be had in Pet Sounds. The idealism of Surf City is such a stark contrast to the reality that is Sloop John B.

I had these thoughts, but the more I dwell on them, it becomes clearer to me that the Beach Boys can be both because they were both. Their depth and versatility was what makes them worth listening to. It’s what allows people to toss around the word “genius” when describing their music, but in this case the word has merit.

Genius. What is it anyway? Is it the order of what you do? Is it anticipating the trajectory of your life or career and optimizing it, so Surfin’ Safari comes before Pet Sounds? Is it your versatility to make both? Is it the process of creating something palatable and fun that has timeless depth and resonance?

I’m not even going to attempt to answer that one. I think there are so many interpretations of what genius is, that it does a disservice to limit them. But I have no problem passing the question on to you. Thoughts?

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46 comments

  1. Le Clown · · Reply

    Emily,
    When I read your title I thought it was going to be a post about Le Clown… I have to agree with you, Brian Wilson is something of a genius… Have you ever heard Animal Collective, or the solo work of Panda Bear? There’s something very Beach Boys about them…
    Le Clown

    1. Trust me, you were in the back of my mind when I titled this thing. How can we not include Le Clown in a discussion of genius?

      I am a fan of Animal Collective, but I will check out Panda Bear.

  2. Emily, now this is a post that could easily be freshly pressed. Excellent review of this album.
    Here’s my little confession. Despite what the critics think and say, I don’t LOVE this album. Sure, I’m impressed with several of the songs but no matter how many times I listen to it, I’m never blown away.
    As far as the word Genius goes… I’m much more likely to use the word “genius” for musicians and writers, not actors. I feel like even then, it should be used sparingly. Beethoven, Mozart, Shakespeare, etc. I’m guessing that’s what real genius looks like.

    1. Thanks, Lisa! It’s totally OK by me if you don’t love Pet Sounds just like you don’t love quinoa. I’ll get over it ;)

      I’m with you with actors. If anything, it’s the filmmakers who are more likely to display traces of genius. Stanley Kubrick and comes to mind.

      1. Haha, see that phantom “and”? I was going to write Woody Allen but then I remembered that pretty much all his movies are variations on Annie Hall. Love him, though.

        1. That’s how I feel, too. He’s got his ways, but I agree, on close inspection they’re all just variations. Even after he started having an affair with his step-daughter, and I wanted to hate him and boycott his movies, I couldn’t because I like him that much. Oh well.

      2. I think I’m the only one on the planet missing the Pet Sounds chip in my brain.

        1. One more thing… I don’t know if you’re familiar with Harper Faulkner, but check out his blog. He disappeared for the summer and now he’s back. He’s funny, clever and a great writer. I think you’ll like him.

          1. I’ve heard of him, but I will need to check him out. Thanks for the tip!

        2. No you are not! I agree – some stand out moments but as a whole the album doesn’t work for me.

          1. Thank goodness you stepped forward!!! The whole Pet Sounds issue always makes me feel like I’m crazy. For what it’s worth, my husband is also on board. He bought the CD recently, as it had come up in conversation, and he thought he’d give it another go, but nope, it’s just not happening.

            1. We should start a support group!

          2. What would you suggest is a great album then? ;D

            1. The Stone Roses first album.

              1. Cool! Will have to check it out!

  3. I am not familiar with this album, but I did see that “God only Knows” is on it and I dig that song. I should check out the whole concept.

    1. That’s one of my favorite songs too. I hope you like the album. I didn’t really care one way or the other for it the first time I heard it, but it grew on me. (Haha obviously.)

  4. At first glance I thought this was about The Pet Shop Boys. Aren’t they a worse version of The Village People or do I take Sam Kinison too literally?

    The Beach Boys never clicked much with me, but they are very catchy. I think it’s whoever does their backing vocals that makes it. He has a sweet voice. I hope he’s not the one who drowned.

    1. Nah, Sam Kinison can never be taken too literally. My husband went thru a phase where he was obsessed with him.

      Brian Wilson didn’t drown but the word on the street is that he composed the Muppet Babies theme song when he was strapped for cash. Not really but it’s a rumor I’d like to start.

  5. I better run off and get this album and check it out.

    1. I hope you like it as much as I do.

  6. I am so sorry to have to admit this, but I really don’t like The Beach Boys. “Help Me, Rhonda” is about the only song I can listen to for even a little while. Good post, though. It almost made me want to give them another listen. I cut my teeth on The Beatles, who first came on the scene when I was five. For some reason, The Beach Boys just didn’t cut it for me.

    1. We can agree to disagree on this one ;D Honestly, Pet Sounds is their only music that I really like. The surfer stuff is kinda gimicky to me. I like Good Vibrations, too.

  7. I too love this album. I didn’t really have much of an opinion of the Beach Boys except from my dad playing them on old LP’s. When I got into college, Hubs and his friends would play this non-stop for some reason. It holds a dear place in my heart as the soundtrack to my early twenties. I’m impressed that you have such a knowledge of it and the band! Hells yeah, girl.

    1. I have a ton of great memories tied to it too! For some reason, B and I listened to it every single night when we were in Paris. However, we always had to skip over God Only Knows because way way back when we were dating, we decided it was our song, so now it always makes us cry. And we get embarrassed crying around each other. So yeah ;D

      OH, and I totally trolled Wikipedia for all that info! The only band I have an encyclopedic knowledge of is the Smashing Pumpkins. And someday I’ll hopefully put it to good use.

      1. This admission has made me feel much better about myself. I have only emotional reactions to music and can’t even remember names of songs to my very favorite bands/singers. It’s like I’m not even TRYING to be a good groupie. No wait, band-aid. Groupies want to do it. I just want to cry about music, too.

        1. Haha! If a song can make me tear up, what’s the point? When I was pregnant, I was feeling ALL the music. At one point I was boo-hooing to the Jackson 5!

  8. Nice tribute to a great recording that has had so much influence. I love the Beatles, but if Pet Sounds had not been recorded before Sgt. Pepper, I think the Beatles greatest album would have sounded considerably different. Pet Sounds was a first so, yeah, I can see why it would be recognized as genius.

    1. When I was researching (AKA reading the Wikipedia entry on the Beach Boys for 8 minutes) this post, there was a lot of info about the link between Sgt. Pepper and Pet Sounds. I never would have known it! Love that album, BTW. In some ways I think it’s a bit more cohesive than Pet Sounds, but that may just be because I grew up listening to it.

      1. They’re two brilliant albums, but yeah, Sgt. Pepper, is the one that’s far better known and I think the snail slow success of Pet Sounds came too late for Brian Wilson. The Beatles disbanded but they didn’t disintegrate like Brian did. He’s such a tragic figure. The Beatles continue to be appreciated more than 40 years after they disbanded; another sign of their genius, but far fewer people are tuned into Brian.

        1. I know, it’s really sad! He’s kind of a ball of mess. I think he’s basically recovered from the tragedies from the 70s and 80s, but he never really bounced back professionally. I still cringe every time I heard Kokomo. I’m not even sure if he was involved with the Beach Boys by the time John Stamos got involved, but still.

          1. Kokomo just sounds like a Beach Boys parody to me. When I think about Brian, and his vast musical talent, i also think about his father who was so integral to the Beach Boys success as he was to Brian’s mental collapse. I find it ironic that Brian, when his illnesses is still kicking while both his younger brothers are long dead. Dennis, the drummer (and the one my sister had a giant crush on in our youth) is the one that drowned. When the time comes for Brian to buy his rainbow, I am sure that his obits will once again mention the masterpiece that was Pet Sounds. As messed up as Brian’s life has been, at least he made one record that was outstanding. How many people can say they’ve done anything that’s pure genius? At least he was able to hold it together long enough to achieve that. Maybe it’s best to be grateful for what he gave us than to lament what failed to ever come next.

  9. Fish Out of Water · · Reply

    I’ll have to tell Teen about it. I was never big into The Beach Boys, but now I’m tempted after reading this.

    1. I was never big into them either until I heard this album. I always thought they were corny. But after a few listens, Pet Sounds really grew on me. LOL, obviously.

  10. Great Album: Abbey Road. The White Album is said to be great, but I prefer Abbey Road. Maybe it’s just my age. Foo Fighters The Color and The Shape. I am terrible at remembering these things. Oh! Dixie Chicks Fly and Taking the Long Way.

    1. I’m the weirdo whose favorite Beatles album is Magical Mystery Tour. Not my favorite movie, though. For corny band movies, my pic is Rock n Roll High Schol with the Ramones.

      1. I’m a little tired of the Beatles, myself. My son agrees. I bet I could get him to watch Rock n Roll High School! Thanks for the tip.

        1. Oh man, it is such a great kitchy movie! I hope he likes it!

  11. FRANK ZAPPA…to me – he is a GENIUS. I actually love concept albums and firmly believe that many albums should be listened to in the order that it appears on the album/CD. “We’re Only In it for the Money”, “Studio Tan”, “Just Another Band from LA” and “Freak Out” would sound weird if they were not played in song order.

    Actually, I feel, many artists (musical in this case) are geni (hee hee) – I’m not a Beach Boys fan, so I’ll take your work for it. But IMHO an artist’s ability to go beyond their comfort zone or what people expect of them and still make something that is mind-blowing makes me respect them even more.

    Great post!

    1. Totally agree about listening to albums in song order. I think that’s going to be one of the casualties of the digital age. I can’t even imagine not listening to Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness the way it’s laid out.

      1. Yes – and missing out on all the liner notes & CD/Album art – I don’t like the idea of just random MP3 files… I am a sort of luddite

  12. Great post, Waiting! The funny thing about Pet Sounds is that it’s very hip and unhip at the same time. It’s hip because so many ‘cool’ bands and music magazines have cited it as a big influence, and yet it’s unhip because, hey, it’s The Beach Boys and, for a psychedelic record, it’s pretty square. If a person can get over the Beach Boys stigma, it’s a pretty good listen. As for being a ‘genius,’ Brain Wilson is a musical genius in a different way than, say, Lennon/Mccartney were. They were brilliant songwriters first and foremost, whereas a lot of the genius of Pet Sounds comes from recording techniques, layered instrumentation, complex vocal harmonies, defining what an album is, and things that general music fans probably aren’t overly interested in.

    Cracked me up that your favorite Beatles record is Magical Mystery Tour! Hey, why not? It’s one of the weirder ones, and I think it’s their most psychedelic one (I don’t understand why Revolver is supposed to be psychedelic when it has all those lame Macca songs on it). Anyways, very cool that you have your own opinion, and I’ll stop blathering on now. : )

    1. Wow, you put that a lot more eloquently than I did! ;D The big question is whether Gangnam Style will be considered genius in the long run. I’m thinking no. And that kind of makes me happy and sad at the same time.

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