The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds

Lenny Kaye

By Lenny Kaye

on 05.18.11 in Reviews

Pet Sounds

Beach Boys

Even weighted with the expectations that surround it, fore (when Brian Wilson set out to create what might be regarded as his first solo album), to aft, when its sense of masterpiece has long been acknowledged as a crucial part of rock's (and I use the term advisedly) growth to artistic awareness, Pet Sounds wears its classicism well. Built piecemeal over a landmark year straddling 1965 — when it was begun with a reconfiguration of the folk chestnut "Sloop John B" — and 1966, when it was released to critical and cult success, if perhaps sailing over the heads of many Beach Boy fans who had come to expect yet another variation on the group's formula (not to mention the Beach Boys themselves, especially the practical-minded Mike Love), it is a pilgrim-agical journey that takes our narrator — lyricized by Tony Asher — from the found innocence of childhood ("Don't Talk – Put Your Head On My Shoulder") to the lost innocence of maturity ("I Just Wasn't Made For These Times"), ultimately giving oneself over to an acceptance of a universal creator ("God Only Knows") that bears some resemblance to a madcap producer in a recording studio crafting an oratorio from the many sound waves that make up our existence. "I remember how you used to say," Brian sings in the stately "O Caroline No," that "you'd never change but that's not true," all the more for the album it graces. Pet Sounds celebrates a sense of spiritual love as much as the early Beach Boys hosanna'd the joys of sun and surf; and in its textural complexities and layered orchestrations can be found our own groping quest for the light of being, the promise of salvation that we find through musical expression.

Wearing its classicism well

Influenced by the ambitious sonic invention and experimentation of Phil Spector and the Beatles, partaking of the psychedelicacies of mid-'60s mind-expansion, and synthesizing layers of sound in unlikely combinations, placing Theremins and chuffing bass harmonicas and accordions and unlikely percussives alongside doubled and tripled guitars and basses, the whole entity hoisted aloft — like the John B's sail — by the stratospheric vocal blends of the Beach Boys as guided and single-minded by Brian, the effect was of a grandeur that still provides wonder at its reach and grasp. As Wilson mixed-and-matched his ideas, an approach that would often find a part created for one song transplanted and segued to another, Pet Sounds became a template of possibility, breaking open boundaries of perceived limitation of what popular music could aspire to, and doing so in a way that was hardly academic. What strikes most in a re-listen — whether the accepted mono version, or a stereo reconfigure bonus'd as part of the 40th anniversary celebration — is that as much as the album was regarded as a startling breakthrough, it still enjoys the traditional pleasures of melodic exultation, soaring chorus and explanatory verse, all couched in the vulnerability that is our human condition when faced with the unknown, and the answers received when we raise our voice in song.