Late to the Party: The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds (1966)

[Late to the Party is a regular series in which people experience a celebrated piece of pop culture from the past for the first time and share their personal reactions. This is not a proper “review” or analysis of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. If you would like to read about Pet Sounds from the perspective of somebody who can speak intelligently about how the music works and where it fits into the context of the Beach Boys’ career, might I recommend this piece by Andrew Hickey?]

Coming into the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, I expected my main point of comparison would be Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

As the story goes, Brian Wilson was so knocked out by the brilliance of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul1 in 1965 that he was inspired to make his own grand artistic statement in the field of pop music, which became 1966’s Pet Sounds. In return, Pet Sounds inspired Paul McCartney to push the Beatles’ sound even further, resulting in Sgt. Pepper the following year. Sgt. Pepper would exceed Pet Sounds in terms of contemporary sales and acclaim, becoming for many years the critical consensus for Greatest Pop Album of All Time, but any standard “best of” list compiled by rock journalists over the next several decades was likely to include Pet Sounds only a few places after—if not right behind—Sgt. Pepper. And, as Sgt. Pepper’s cachet has sagged somewhat under the weight of its own reputation, Pet Sounds’ has only gone up, especially as a cited influence on later artists. These are albums that are firmly situated in a conversation with each other, both in their origins and in critical response.

I grew up in a Beatles house. Their music was always playing; there were posters and prints of them hung in hallway. There are home videos of my younger brother and me dancing to “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” We all watched The Beatles Anthology miniseries when it premiered on AB(eatles)C, which supplanted The Compleat Beatles documentary we had on RCA VideoDisc. Consequently, I could never have the experience of listening to Sgt. Pepper fresh. When I got my first Discman as a young person and started developing from a passive listener of popular music to an active one, what I heard on my first dedicated listen of Sgt. Pepper were thirteen songs I was already mostly familiar with. The music was just too engrained in the culture, in my life; I can’t remember ever watching a Star Wars movie and not already knowing that Darth Vader was Luke’s dad, either.

I did not grow up in a Beach Boys house, however. As far as I knew as a kid growing up in the ’90s, the Beach Boys were these dudes who’d sung a bunch of songs about surfing and cars and were now sort of embarrassing old men2 playing “Kokomo” and guest-starring on Full House. I really liked “I Get Around” and most of the other Beach Boys songs I heard on the radio, but they were on the Oldies station, not on the [deep voice with reverb] CLASSIC ROCK station that played late-period Beatles tracks.

And to some degree, that’s stuck with me. I’ve been fascinated by music production since I was in college, and so I’ve read enough about Brian Wilson’s work to know that my notion of the Beach Boys’ music is based on a woefully, even shamefully incomplete picture of their output. But still, every time I’ve thought to dig into their discography, a lack of enthusiasm has always convinced me to find something else to do with my time.

So, when Late to the Party signups were posted, I decided now was the time to engage with the legendary Pet Sounds, whose songs I had never heard outside the singles, 3 and perhaps I might have that magical first listening experience that Sgt. Pepper did not and could not provide. Still, as I queued up the album, I told myself to try to put the Beatles out of my mind and listen to the album and the group as themselves, on their own terms.

As it turns out, I didn’t have a very hard time separating this from Sgt. Pepper. I didn’t find the two albums very similar at all aside from their broad shared goal of expanding the instrumental palette of pop music.

What I kept thinking of, instead, was Arrested Development.

I was also late to the party with that show, although by only a couple years as opposed to Pet Sounds‘ fifty-four. Someone gave me the DVDs, and I knew the show by reputation as a triumph of comedy foolishly ignored by viewers when it was still on TV. On first watch, I immediately recognized it as a great work. The jokes are so thoughtfully crafted and perfectly executed. There are gags where I was in awe of how invisibly they had been set up before finally paying off several minutes, or episodes, or seasons later. It’s so ceaselessly unpredictable in a way I don’t think I’d ever seen in a sitcom before or since. I was constantly moved to say, “That’s some very clever wordplay,” and “I never expected that joke to go there.”

What I wasn’t moved to do all that much was to actually laugh. I had very little visceral in-the-moment reaction. These amazing jokes and brilliant performances … and all I was getting was a steady bunch of Sensible Chuckles. The comedy was happening entirely in my brain. I developed an immense respect and appreciation for the humor, but I didn’t actually feel it.

Well, I’m sure you see where I’m going with this.

Pet Sounds is obviously gorgeous, obviously innovative, constantly surprising. But I don’t feel it the way you want to with pop music. I’m sitting in a chair listening to “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” again thinking, “Yes, that string quartet and those tense little chords they are playing is expertly communicating beauty and sadness and devotion and naive feeling.” But I don’t feel those things.

What I do feel is Brian Wilson reaching out: to me, to you, to everyone. I listen to the complexity of the arrangements and I think, “My God, he heard this all in his head, and he worked so hard to reproduce those sounds on the record because he needed to share them with me.” You can feel that yearning for connection. This music is meant to challenge your notions of what pop music sounds like, but it’s not meant to challenge you. It’s not meant to be difficult; the idea is instant accessibility, of relatability, in fact. When I think about “I’m Just Not Meant for These Times,” I am just devastated and touched because I sense Brian Wilson putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, “Listen to me: I feel alienated and misunderstand and alone a lot of the time. I feel that I don’t belong. But if you ever feel the same way, then I think we can at least not belong together.”

But when I listen to “I’m Just Not Meant for These Times,” I mostly feel a pleasant, gentle tune with a dreamy arrangement that is complex for its time without sacrificing sensitivity and intimacy. I see a lot of fine brush strokes that make up a really well-made picture of a woman wearing a little smile, but I don’t feel the enigma of the Mona Lisa.

Why is this, I wonder? What Pet Sounds has in common with Arrested Development, I suppose, is that they are both very consciously constructed works. You can’t help but detect some very clever writers’ fingerprints all over the heavily engineered jokes in Arrested Development, and it’s hard to listen to Pet Sounds without also picturing Brian Wilson toiling over a mixing board to blend the harmonium and the piano and the organ into juuuust the right texture that communicates “loving someone unconditionally.” Are these works too precise? Are they lacking some spark of spontaneity?

But being able to see the people holding the strings has never been a turn-off for me personally. I love the comedies Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg have written together and how airtight those scripts are, how there’s nothing in the first half that they don’t make sure to pay off in the second. And I love Jeff Lynne’s almost mechanical precision in his post-ELO production work, how all the instruments are meant to unobtrusively support your understanding of the chords and the melody, which is what he’s interested in.

So I don’t think Pet Sounds is overproduced. The term “overproduced” is, in fact, probably the surest thing to turn me off a piece of music criticism that you can write. I enjoy a producer with a heavy footprint. I make it a point to listen for production and arrangement when I listen to pop music.

But, when I listen to Pet Sounds, I feel like the production and arrangement is all that I’m really compelled to listen for. I think this is where, if you do want to bring Sgt. Pepper into it, the difference lies. Sgt. Pepper is brilliant production in the service of brilliant songwriting. And if I’m honest, I think Pet Sounds is brilliant production in the service of pretty good songwriting.

And that’s a difference that I think is hard to surmount. It’s not even really a criticism, is the thing. It would be different if the songs were lazy or tossed-off underachievements, but they’re not; Brian Wilson is clearly working at 100% possible effort here. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is an all-timer, a composition I find incredibly stirring, but the rest? Even something like “God Only Knows,” generally regarded as a classic…I just like John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s songs better. At some point that just becomes irreducible. It’s the difference between an amazing paint job on the sweetest car in the world and an amazing paint job on a car you think is pretty good.

It’s not just the Beatles. XTC would eventually go on to do Beach Boys kinds of pastiches better than the Beach Boys. Elvis Costello’s “The Other Side of Summer” uses the Brian Wilson wall of sound to create an ironic counterpoint to one of his bitterest, bleakest songs. Or take Of Montreal’s earlier albums—particularly The Gay Parade and Coquelicot Asleep in the Poppies—which clearly owe so much to Pet Sounds. Those albums with their layers of sounds and their kitchen-sink arrangements could not exist without Brian Wilson having gotten there first. But Kevin Barnes took what Brian Wilson showed him how to do and applied it to songs about lovesick volunteer firemen, invisible trees and owl translators, kidnapped industrialists, and wax museum proprietors, and it just so happens that I think those songs are better, more interesting. I want to listen to them in a way I’m a little more indifferent about the tunes on Pet Sounds.

So don’t get me wrong, I think Pet Sounds is a great album. I’m glad I finally took the time to listen to it; I liked it. But divested of its historical interest, it’s a pretty good chamber pop album. That it invented chamber pop turns out to be, when I’m looking for an album to listen to, beside the point.