You Still Believe In Me: 50 Years of Pet Sounds
Regardless of what you’re into, 2016 has been one of the most incredible years for music in some time. What’s more, it’s been a tremendous year for us here at TIDAL. As a means of celebrating the past year, we’re taking time in these last two weeks of 2016 to highlight the written pieces we’re most proud of, drawing from a variety of our columns, interviews and more!
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Pet Sounds: a floral and expansive work of near ineffable value by just about every meaningful metric.
It’s an album that I grew up on, one that my California mama played throughout my perhaps charmed childhood and that I continue to return to in my young adulthood. It’s a 23-year-old Beach Boy’s ethereal yet wholly accessible meditation on tenderness and vulnerability, one that’s spoken to the lovers, the lonely and the longing for a half-century now. Routinely listed as one of the greatest albums of all time, it’s a hell of a thing to listen to, even 50 years later. But what is a man to definitively say about this such an enveloping, impassioned and honored masterpiece such as this?
I could talk about the album’s immense musical sophistication, and about the extent to which Brian Wilson, its chief architect, was obsessively involved with its arrangement, orchestration and production. About how session bassist Carol Kaye reports that “he was totally in charge of everything.” I could cite the vanquished skepticism of veteran saxophonist Steve Douglas, who recalls that much of Wilson’s labor on Pet Sounds “didn’t make any sense until Brian overdubbed the strings and it all fell together,” and how Brian could “hear these complex orchestrations” entirely in his head.
I could further mention the unwavering support of the world-renowned Wrecking Crew session collective as well as the album’s extensive and innovative use of multi-track recording. And its utilization of unusual instrumentation, which included a bizarre orchestra of bicycle horns, vibraphones, timpani, finger cymbals, Coke cans, accordions, Brian’s dogs, mandolins, the electro-theremin and water jugs, to name just a few.
I could talk about the tremendously bold commercial risk that Pet Sounds was given its drastic departure from the radio-tested subjects of girls, cars and surfing, noting how bandmate Mike Love told his cousin Brian to not “fuck with the formula” that had yielded the Beach Boys 23 charting singles prior to 1966. And I could certainly go further, expounding at length about how Pet Sounds was among the first concept albums in a landscape then wholly dominated by the disjointed single, thus making it one of the first pop albums to ask for a sequential listen from start to finish.
Moreover, I could oh so easily talk about the profound and perennial acclaim that Pet Sounds has garnered over the last 50 years. About how Beatles producer George Martin said “without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper never would have happened” and that “Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds,” then citing Paul McCartney’s belief that one must hear the entirety of Pet Sounds to be considered musically educated.
And then I could quote the head-over-heels admiration of contemporaries like Eric Clapton, who said the album “encompasses everything that’s ever knocked [him] out and rolled it all into one,” along with Bob Dylan, Burt Bacharach, Tom Petty, John Cale, Leonard Bernstein and Philip Glass, who praised the record for “its willingness to abandon formula in favor of structural innovation, [the] introduction of classical elements in the arrangements” and “production concepts in terms of overall sound.”
But to dwell on any of that for too long would be to miss the heart of Pet Sounds‘ most essential and enduring endowment. Putting aside the record’s musical complexity, commercial daring, studio innovations and critical recognition, it’s the universal emotional quality of Pet Sounds that makes it so timeless and special.
When Brian Wilson first heard Rubber Soul in 1965, he found himself completely awestruck by what The Beatles had accomplished, amazed with how “every cut was very artistically interesting and stimulating.” Rubber Soul inspired Brian to pursue a path beyond the confines of conventional pop, an ambitious path fueled by a desire to use music as a vehicle for more meaningfully expressing the ups and downs of the human experience. And while a handful of earlier works like “In My Room” and “Surfer Girl” teased at this inclination, it would not be realized in totality until Pet Sounds.
Consider for a moment the mass relatability of a song like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” the album’s opening number. Who among us cannot empathize with its opening lines, voicing the lustful impatience of a teenager’s beautiful albeit naïve belief that with age comes freedom and ease? By the same token, what adult doesn’t long for the blissful ignorance and relative simplicity of youth? Album closer “Caroline No” confronts the latter sentiment, offering one of the most heartbreaking admissions of age-earned disillusionment ever heard in pop: “Could I ever find in you again / Things that made me love you so much then / Could we ever bring ‘em back once they have gone / Oh, Caroline no.”
Pet Sounds might not have endured as it has were it not so disarmingly vulnerable. It’s an album of omnipresent experiences, of truths we have either lived or have yet to live. The fact of the matter is that concepts of self-doubt and alienation, explored on “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” or of gratitude mixed with crippling guilt, as dwelled upon on “You Still Believe In Me,” prove to be universal constants, as with the lust for life heard on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” It’s fitting then that there’s no posturing on Pet Sounds, not a single moment where Brian and the boys pretend to be above the ever-whirling back and forth of satisfaction and strife experienced in life. Instead, they sweetly celebrate the good and lament the sad, thereby standing on common ground with anyone truly willing to listen. It’s as if Brian Wilson is softly singing: “I’ve been there. I understand. You’re not alone.”
Of the Beach Boys, legendary music critic Lester Bangs wrote: “Maybe it’s just that unprickable and ingenuous wholesomeness that accounts not only for their charm, but for their beauty—a beauty so awesome that listening to them at their best is like being in some vast dream cathedral decorated with a thousand gleaming American pop culture icons.”
And in the gleaming dream cathedral of American pop culture, there is no higher hymn than “God Only Knows,” the true heart of Pet Sounds and a telling indicator as to the incorruptible sweetness of Brian Wilson. In Jim Fusilli’s excellent 33 & 1/3 book on the album, he manages to articulate the track’s magic, explaining that “God Only Knows” is “a distillation of much of what Pet Sounds is about: the sense that if we surrender to an all-consuming love, we will never be able to live without it. And, though we’re uncertain that the reward is worth the risk, we yearn to surrender.”
Fusilli’s thoughtful take encapsulates the glimmering, wholesome and deeply human vulnerability on display throughout the entirety of Pet Sounds. Within our own hearts we all yearn, I think, to submit to the untainted sentiments of “God Only Knows,” to a life in pursuit of love, devoid of the cynicism so rampant and tragically justified today.
I find it incredibly hopeful that such purity of heart and spirit, so authentic it evokes the legend of Sir Galahad, came from so tormented a soul as Brian Wilson. Though it may be hard to imagine, Brian’s upbringing might best be described as a nightmare, one largely facilitated by his abusive and jealous father. Murry Wilson terrorized his children both emotionally, once forcing Brian to defecate in front of him into a paper bag, and physically, in one instance hitting a two-year-old Brian so hard that he went deaf in his right ear. But rather than growing into an angry or bitter man, Brian combatted the ugliness of his own life by way of purity, reaching always for the innocence of childhood he never actually knew.
Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where darkness is more combatted by purity and hate by twinkling love? Well, maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true. This is why Pet Sounds burns so bright half a century later: the album is born of true goodness and absolute humility, while emanating a signal of ambitious, universal love.
A few days ago, looking out my window while listening to “God Only Knows,” images from my life began to flash before my eyes. Family, friends, lovers and favorite places were present in each and every moment and so I smiled. Listening to Pet Sounds makes me smile. I love it for its goodness, for the way that it has subtly informed my heart and shaped my person; for how it always speaks to me, empathizing with or uplifting my spirits, depending on my need. It’s the soundtrack to my life and might as well be everybody else’s, really. The trick is to let it in.
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