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?