Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Pet Sounds (1966)

(Previous shenanigans and assays here and here.)

Over the years I have come to think of this more as some obscure object of cult adoration, maybe on the order of Forever Changes or Secret Life of Harpers Bizarre or Five Leaves Left, a secret I share with maybe only a few thousand others on the planet. A delusion, in any case (and with all of them), but why do I think this? Fallout from the Smile debacle, maybe a little, which legend of course claimed as their Sgt. Pepper (which would then make this their Revolver, yes? So what's the problem?). Pet Sounds did spawn four top 40 hits, remember (counting the Brian Wilson solo, "Caroline, No"), two of them top 10s. But I don't know—I still have the impression that this familiar pantheon selection has been marginalized some, maybe more than it deserves. Or maybe not. It's hard to tell. It's an odd one, no denying that.

For one thing, it's never exactly rock 'n' roll, although it kicks off on an exuberant high note that nearly approximates it, "Wouldn't it Be Nice," one of the great singles of the '60s. But no, particularly in the context that follows, it's not too much rock 'n' roll at all, closer to oh, erm, "sparkling pop lounge," let's say, for lack of a better term, with the various lavish orchestral and other touches of audio texturing. Its bicycle horns and bells, harpsichords, theremins, wood blocks, lonesome trains flying down the track, and barking dogs, not to mention, always, those glorious and infinitely calculated harmonies, put it very much in the realm of a studio fantasy-scape.

But it's also so deeply personal. There was always some bent toward this with the Beach Boys. Even as hit-making factory capable of "Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Be True to Your School," they delivered up songs like "In My Room" and "Don't Worry Baby," great upwellings of an isolated (not to say utterly insulated) soul, haunting, vulnerable, poignant statements. That was matched with a flair for melody and arrangement that only appeared to be getting better. Chief songwriter and producer and head introvert Brian Wilson was increasingly where the gold lay, both creatively and commercially, even when he retired from touring in 1964—especially then. Pet Sounds stands in at a certain sustained peak of the period, not necessarily perfect of itself, but with handfuls of perfect moments enough to make it an album I return to often and think of very fondly. It stays stuck in players for weeks or more at a time, and that seems to happen every few years.

Now, just speculating, one reason I might find myself immune to the hysteria and mythologizing about the missing Smile is that I actually came to Pet Sounds late, in the early '80s, plucked out of a cutout bin (and incidentally perhaps the reason I think of it as obscure now). As a kid I loved all those tremendous mid-'60s hits, because how could you not—"California Girls," "Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villains," and "Wouldn't it Be Nice" and "Sloop John B" from this album (I was even nuts for "Barbara Ann," but that’s more genuinely a kiddy song).

But next thing I noticed practically they were on the oldies circuit, and I never gave much more thought to them for a long time than I did to, say, the Supremes after their great period of radio hits. With Pet Sounds, 15 years late, I appreciated how the big hits bookended the first side nicely, but it was the poignant songs around them that impressed: "God Only Knows" (the last charting song from the album, which peaked at #39), "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," "That's Not Me," "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)," "I Know There's an Answer." The titles themselves practically tell the story: it's one person's whole world, a big, frightening, wonderful place, where cares and worries fall away and love is as simple as putting a head on a shoulder. A fantasy land, on one level—yet there is always puling anxiety, a pained awareness of cares and worries too.

It's altogether beautiful. Each individual song, including the instrumentals which may or may not veer close to cheese, stands on its own and blends with the others in a tapestry of mood and yearning, a fantasy that hurts a little even as it is so sweet. Of course, there is a wonderful tension between how personal the songs are and how public the execution, that is, how dependent on so many people. Even the lead vocals, often a blend of many voices and close harmonies. "Sloop John B," for example, just to make a little note of the instrumentation on one track, which is emblematic of the whole album, includes: drums, tambourine, string bass, electric bass, guitars (3), organ, glockenspiel, clarinet, flute, and baritone saxophone. It's another part of the cognitive dissonance that makes the whole thing work for me—charm, mystery, sophistication, innocence, wonder. It's all here.

About those two instrumentals: one per side, nestled up close to the finales, "Let's Go Away for Awhile" and the title song are perhaps the most eloquent statements on the album about what it is and does, and especially, how it feels. It's strictly coolsville where they are, one part Parisian cosmopolite, one part carefree swinging California sunshine. Elements such as the dramatic and emphatic tympani in "Let's Go Away for Awhile" (another great song title in an album full of them) undercut the cool with a certain urgency that reminds again how much this is an album essentially by one person, and an eccentric person at that. But the rich surfaces created are vastly beguiling in service of him.

On two key songs the talk is more explicitly about what he is and is not, served up as a kind of feeling-through negative space ("not this," "wasn't that"). Now there is no band, save more or less as hired assistants, driven by the single vision and voice of Brian Wilson: "That's Not Me" and "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" are remarkably evocative, starting (again) with the simple sentiments of the titles. "That's Not Me" spells out the basic context early, in many ways the context for the whole album, which is the anxiety of failure: "I once had a dream / So I packed up and split for the city / I soon found out that my lonely life wasn't so pretty." What's not him, even according to his parents in a letter to the city, is leaving his girl to make it on his own—independence. Then the fantasy life quickly enters as well: "What matters to me is what I could be to just one girl," softly sounding the wistful all-grown-up note of "Wouldn't it Be Nice": "I'm glad I went now, I'm that much more sure that we're ready."

"I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" (sometimes I speculate the Pet Shop Boys borrowed their own song-naming strategies wholesale from this album) is forthright about its intentions at every level. Arriving at the peak of British Invasion 2 guitars bass drum garage-rock aesthetics, it plods at soporific tempos, fitted out with clip-clop wooden blocks, a theremin, those emphatic tympani again, and occasional vaporous swirling eddies of harmonies, but mostly led by the reedy vocal of Brian Wilson. It's shrewd, canny songwriting. A person not feeling part of these times, after all—any person, any times—is probably more universal than otherwise, so the sentiment tugs here, and the warm whirlpool of emotion it offers seems a welcome place to pitch forward into.

Indeed, the whole album works much on those levels for me. But there is also something special in terms of good old sentimental wallowing in "Sloop John B," a #3 hit in the spring of 1966, which amazingly still has potential to bring back feelings and sensations from that time. So I can't help but love it for that, of course. The turn to sailing is a little surprising, one more outdoors California activity like surfing and cars, I suppose—but not really like them. If anything it's more symptom of Brian Wilson's fantasy mindset. It is actually a West Indies folk song that appeared on a 1927 collection put together by Carl Sandburg, and the sailing is more of the high-seas than recreational variety. Versions of it had previously been recorded by the Weavers, Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, the pop singer Jimmie Rodgers, and Dick Dale. But you would never know it—I never did myself until practically just now. The arrangement by Brian Wilson and Al Jardine (and the fact they got the real hit out of it) has effectively made it the property of the Beach Boys since. In fact, many put it on the short lists of their best. I would guess that can be accounted for by how hard it leans into the phrase "I wanna go home," which is made to order for Brian Wilson, this album, and the Beach Boys' world view at large.

Last, and the opposite of least, it comes to a tremendous head on "Caroline, No," the last song and one of their greatest, overbrimming with tender feelings. It was released as a Brian Wilson solo a couple months ahead of the album and made it to #32. The fact that it fits so neatly with the rest of the album is just more evidence I think of what a personal project the whole thing is. It was written originally by Wilson as "Carol, I Know," with a high school crush in mind, but in the playback co-writer Tony Asher and all agreed "Caroline, No," which it already sounded like, fit the mood better. And it does—one of the finest uses of a comma in a song title I know. It feels like what it feels like to lose something you never had, which could well be the bitterest-sweetest loss of all. Weighed down by emotion as much as the album opener "Wouldn't it Be Nice" is buoyed by it, it drifts toward an opium haze despair that is nearly pleasure itself, and starkly romantic. That briefest pause signaled by the comma contains all the anguish, casting it back again into realms of fantasy. "Where is the girl I used to know? How could you lose that happy glow?" On the other hand, perhaps something really happened: "It's so sad to watch a sweet thing die." Like the rest of the album, it is ultimately a mystery, residing in the interiors of Brian Wilson's head. Those with inspiration to treat this as a headphones album know well the wisdom of ending it on a lonesome train and dogs barking. Pet sounds. It's nighttime there. The petting zoo has closed.

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up. I always appreciated the songs but still resisted this landmark b/c of the keening, almost shrill, production sound. But some kids played it for me a few years back while returning from a field trip and it came into focus. It's the sound of pre-sexual teenage desire. This desperate yearning w/out a hint of carnal knowledge.