Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Beach Boys, "God Only Knows" (1966)

Sept. 17, 1966, #39 

Leave it to Brian Wilson to turn a figure of speech into a prayer and back again in the conventional space of some 2:54. We are listening to the hosannas still, and I come to deliver another. "God Only Knows" was the b-side to the top 10 hit "Wouldn't it Be Nice" and somehow, from that position, managed to crawl into the top 40 on its own, reaching #39 (I guess jukebox play or something had to be a factor). The various accolades are quite colossal at this time: Paul McCartney's favorite song of all time, #25 on a Rolling Stone list (500 Greatest Songs of All Time), and perhaps most unbelievably #1 on a Pitchfork list (Greatest Songs of the 1960s). I like "God Only Knows" because I like the sound of everything that came of the Pet Sounds sessions: the brilliant harmonies, and the songs, inflected equally with rock 'n' roll and European pop song, earnest entreaties to a heartless universe, a touching faith and its incipient erosion. Here it is plain as can be in the shrewd choice of phrase to lean on, so plaintive and heartfelt in the stained-glass cathedrals of the harmonies: "God only knows ... God only knows ... God only knows." What I'd be without you, to complete the thought. But the real energy here, always, is more on the order of agape—even as it is not entirely clear that it's not the girl herself who might be God. In which case, that's creepy. But of a piece with the sense we have of Brian Wilson's complexes, which include among other things a certain compulsive need to worship. He breaks that off pretty clean here, and produces a song that is endlessly beautiful, not to say exalted.

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