Friday, March 9, 2012

"Such magical sounds"

An album that was both inspired by Rubber Soul and part of the motivation for Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is always going to be relevant on this blog. On a personal note, this same album is among my favorites. It's one of the few collections of pop music that I consider nourishing to the soul. Indeed, I usually don't go three or four months without dipping into Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys' landmark psychedelic-pop release of 1966. I did so again last week with the intention of recording some thoughts and observations. Pet Sounds is an album one should not just know, but know intimately. It's a way of returning the favor to Brian Wilson for how revealing he is on these thirteen tracks.

A perfection-crazed auteur even at age 23 (23!) when he started the project, Brian has said that the music of Pet Sounds - marked by warm, wistful, whimsical soundscapes; the colorful and complex meeting point of Phil Spector, baroque, and found objects - is actually more personal than the lyrical content. Part of his ambition with the album was to almost make lyrics unnecessary. Using the studio as one of his exotic instruments, he wanted the music to be able to communicate on its own the outlines of his emotional existence. He dubbed it "feeling-music." This is one of the album's great triumphs: Through the sonics alone you encounter not only Brian the tortured sound architect, but also Brian the gentle dreamer, Brian the fragile soul, and Brian the earnest romantic. You could say that Pet Sounds is a musical portrait of Brian Wilson's inner life.

This portrait is fleshed out and made more immediate by the lyrics, which Brian mostly co-wrote with Tony Asher, an ad copywriter whom he barely knew before they collaborated. Asher has said he served as his counterpart's interpreter and helped give narrative life to the emotions conveyed by the music. What resulted was a moving and resonant account of human frailty. There's callow longing for adulthood ("Wouldn't It Be Nice"); strongly-implied boyish indiscretion ("You Still Believe in Me"); isolation ("I Just Wasn't Made for These Times"); and heartbreak ("Caroline, No"). All of it shows Brian, a man of deep vulnerability, struggling to retain what he considers his innocence. At times, he pines for a youth that he's doubtlessly romanticizing, and elsewhere he looks ahead to the future with both trepidation and excitement. He wants the comfort and stability of love without the inevitable complications. He may sound naive, but the spellbinding sincerity of his appeals is what matters. That voice could never tell a lie, right?

Brian's voice and those of the other Beach Boys made the band, and their vocal arrangements on Pet Sounds supply much of its beauty. The harmonies are exquisite; the way different parts weave in and out of each other - rising and falling, fading in and then dissolving - displays a beautiful kind of mathematical perfection; and the contrast between Brian's elegant higher pitch and Mike Love's nasal delivery works as well as it ever did. And then there's Carl Wilson's stirring, heaven-sent performance on "God Only Knows" (once Macca's choice for his favorite song of all time; not sure if this remains true). It was supposed to be Brian's vocal, but he eventually concluded that Carl's voice was better suited to the material. The decision, so unselfish, was handsomely rewarded.

Lastly, I can't resist highlighting some of my favorite moments from the album. There are many. I love the booming drumbeat that sets "Wouldn't It Be Nice" into motion; I love the way Brian sings "I kiss your lips when your face looks sad" on "I'm Waiting for the Day" - it's with such determined affection; I love the baritone saxophone that chugs through the end of "Sloop John B"; (And what's really happening in that song, anyway? Such a prosaic story - and the thematic outlier of the bunch - and yet so full of tension and urgency.) I love the line "I may not always love you" for what it really is: the biggest bluff in all of pop music; I love the weird instrumental break on "Here Today"; and I love everything about "Caroline, No," a song of dreamy, slow-moving heartbreak that should be a mainstream pop classic but isn't. It's the Beach Boys' "She's Leaving Home."

One hopes that Brian Wilson knows just how much Pet Sounds means to so many people. It's an album we love, and it seems to love us right back. Achieving a perfection of sound, it wasn't just a giant leap forward for the Beach Boys; it was a giant leap forward for all of pop music. Its influence is vast. Who knows: Without it, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band may never have happened, and then where would pop music be today?

*The quote in the title comes from Elton John.

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