The Long Read: The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds
Words by Evan Musgrave
THE LONG READ DELVES INTO THE CREATIVE PROCESS BEHIND THOSE CLASSIC RECORDS. WITHOUT A FURTHER ADO...
In this edition, Evan Musgrave explores the innocence and human nature behind one of The Beach Boys' most influential full-lengths, Pet Sounds; relationship break-up music without teenage angst or naivety.
it may not always be so; and i say
that if your lips, which i have loved,should touch
another’s, and your dear strong fingers clutch
his heart, as mine in time not far away;
if on another’s face your sweet hair lay
in such silence as i know,or such
great writhing words as, uttering overmuch
stand helplessly before the spirit at bay;
if this should be, i say if this should be-
you of my heart, send me a little word;
that i may go unto him, and take his hands,
saying,Accept all happiness from me.
Then shall i turn my face, and hear one bird
Sing terribly afar in the lost lands
E. E. Cummings (1917).
Like Cummings’s poem, Pet Sounds paints a picture which is at once experimental yet straightforwardly expressed and which draws upon metaphor but is firmly committed to stating the plain facts. Both Brian Wilson and e. e. cummings similarly formulate their message in highly personalised language – cummings with his trademark use of unpredictable punctuation, Wilson through his innovative time signatures and use of unconventional instruments. Like cummings, Wilson combines the innocent tone of a child with the wisdom of a septuagenarian, all rendered with the skill of a classically-trained artist and the mindset of an enlightened vandal. In both cases, their work would seem erratic if it wasn’t so undeniably beautiful.
Pet Sounds is alternative rock before alternative was a tag that could be applied to rock. One of the greatest aspects of the album’s legacy is its radical use of the recording studio as an instrument in order to create a wildly different sound than that which was prevalent beforehand. The microscopic focus of Brian Wilson’s mind and his zealous drive to craft a wholly alternative musical text is inscribed in popular music history forever. The use of the ‘studio as an instrument’ was not novel in itself, but the idea of inhabiting the studio and preening every minutiae of the recording process in order to produce an album-length cohesive project was starkly different from what had been attempted before by a popular musician. What had been hinted at in the symphonic tones of the single ‘California Girls’ (1965), became a full-blown obsession for the twenty three year old as he strove to move beyond the All-American striped jumper commodity image the band and its fans had grown accustomed to and make a wild leap into the realm of the avant-garde.
Inspired by, and written in challenge to, Rubber Soul this album sits at the middle point of an intriguing back-and-forth between these creative powerhouse bands. The Beatles, upon hearing the album, then set about bettering Wilson’s effort, coming up with Sgt Pepper’s. In bettering Rubber Soul, Brian sought to embellish The Beach Boys’ knock-out knack for vocal harmonies with some of the most experimental use of musical instruments in popular recording history. Over the course of the album’s thirty six minutes the listener is treated to the subtly-placed sounds of bicycle horns, vibraphones, timpani, finger cymbals, modified twelve-string mandolins, Coke cans, water jugs and many more creatively used items. ‘You Still Believe in Me’, for instance, opens with the sound of the inside strings of a piano being plucked. It brought new meaning to the concept of using the world around you to create musical art. Pet Sounds is mellifluous eccentricity writ large.
All this sonic experimentation would probably constitute a mere footnote in history if it weren’t for the similarly cohesive thematic structure of the album, however. Working with outside lyricist Tony Asher, Wilson created a series of songs which are so very candid, so frank, that their interplay with the complicated, lush sound of the text constitutes a feat of emotional engineering.
‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ makes clever use of the conditional tense as its central motif. The pleasant melody instilling the dreamy, upbeat feel to the music doesn’t distract from the pain-ridden core of the song for long. Every vision that is conjured up is indeed that: a dream. Wouldn’t it be nice to live together. Wouldn’t it be all be nice if it worked out. Wouldn’t it be ever, ever so nice. Then the sucker punch arrives during the bridge: “You know it seems the more we talk about it, it only makes it worse to live without it, but let’s talk about it”. The awful confusion of being stuck in an unpleasant moment, yet unable to let go. The strokes of confusion painted in the opening track remain in some form over the course of the rest of the album as the singer returns each time in a state of emerging clarity only to find all that was held dear is definitively absent by the end.
The fact that it doesn’t follow an exact linear format as such is a lucid move. The culmination of a serious relationship is rarely linear in its descent. Doubt enters, leaves, returns stronger, other emotions get mixed up in the fray. The songs of Pet Sounds, like the staggered lines of cummings’s poem, capture the scattered moments of ups and downs during the process of falling out of love.
One song in particular seems most striking. ‘Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)’ is surely one of the most touching songs about a lovers’ tiff ever written. The beauty of this song lies in how it captures a lovers’ tiff which isn’t actually a tiff, but rather a significant step to breaking up. There is a lack of communication between the parties involved, despite being in a state of apparent resolution. The desperate drawn out repetition, “Listen, listen, listen”, hints at the underlying unease. The song offers a near-perfect description of the sensation of feeling close to someone who is drifting from you: “I can hear so much in your sighs/And I can see so much in your eyes”.
‘I’m Waiting For the Day’ details a post-breakup state of mind. The protagonist is holding on to the belief that their now once significant other will change their mind; their head has just surely just become temporarily warped, surely. The utter miserable confusion of it all reaches a crescendo with the helplessness of the line, “I guess I’m saying you’re the only one”.
Critics still struggle to settle on a convenient means of describing the sound of Pet Sounds. ‘Psychedelic’ is often thrown around, sometimes with ‘proto-‘ attached. It is ‘pop’, in a sense, but the tag is too broad to be satisfactory. ‘Baroque’ probably comes the closest, but a definition of the term is frustratingly convoluted. It’s perhaps best considered simply as a profound artistic statement that puts Brian Wilson in league with history’s most inventive artistic thinkers.
The two instrumental tracks on the album showcase the compositional skill and emotional intelligence of the man in demonstrating his ability to translate complex thoughts into music. ‘Let’s Go Away For A While’ and the title track ‘Pet Sounds’ are both replete with melodic features yet uncontained by any driving tuneful thrust. They’re full-bodied songs that are unafraid of verging into empty space. ‘Let’s Go Away’ is a particularly poignant piece. It captures the complexity of at first living and then remembering the high points of a relationship. It segues from twinkling innocence into a rousing string section before a brief pause in which the song re-establishes itself. At 1:42 the horn section enters, landing as soberly as a courtroom mallet. For anyone who has ever gone away for a while, it’s likely to bring up memories, and for many, the act of remembering is a confirmation of how far you are away from those memories. Paul McCartney talked of the tears that inevitably came to his eyes when he listened to the album, it’s tempting to think that he was referring to moments like these.
The final two songs on the album detail acceptance. ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ places the speaker in a point of forced maturity. It’s a moving song about having to ‘grow up’ in response to feeling alienated in the world. Again, the lyrics are quite simple, but profound in their simplicity. Everyone’s had that moment Brian expresses so delicately in wobbling desperation: “what’s it all about?”. The album closes with ‘Caroline, No’, maybe the most beautiful song on the album; certainly a strong contender to ‘Don’t Talk’. At the 55 second mark, the lyrics seem to melt away, dissolving into a wail, picking up where the Tannerin fade out on the last track left off. The song deals more heavily in symbolism than other tracks, both lyrically and sonically. It opens with an image of a girl cutting her hair – a literal means of shedding the past, if you will – and the final sound of the album is that of a train leaving a station, moving away from the recording device: au revoir, farewell, on to the next stop.
Pet Sounds is relationship breakup music, but without anything really resembling teenage angst. Even though the lyrics often seem written from the point of view of an innocent, teenage protagonist (e.g. ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’), the overall body of lyrics and the soundscape of the album belie any such naivety. The tone is of course pointedly innocent, yet the album is anything but; it’s like teenage music written by, and for, adults. Or maybe it’s just that a breakup brings the teenager out in all of us. Pet Sounds is not about being down in the dumps as such; it’s about the rawness of loss, a mature acceptance that this has happened before and will, almost certainly, happen again, and even that perhaps this profound sense of humanity is something to be cherished. Perhaps that is after all the only appropriate tag to use in defining the album - human.