Have you heard the (pet) sounds?

Joshua Farley, Sophomore Contributor

“Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” is the line that opens Pet Sounds with a bang. Released in 1966, the album is a front-to-back symphonic pop magnum opus, produced by the leader of The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson. Largely considered a masterpiece by music fans, the album is a key example of the Wall of Sound production style that was popular in the 1960s. Written with lyrical collaborator Tony Asher, with some contributions from band member Mike Love, the album includes The Beach Boys’ signature vocal harmonies, the electro-theremin, accordions, and a few french horn solos, all build into a lush musical landscape which build an atmosphere and story that arch through the entire album, forming a clear concept of growing up and facing changes in life. To that end, let’s first consider the historical context that led to the creation of Pet Sounds.

It all started when Brian Wilson, the leader of The Beach Boys, heard the American version of the Beatles’ 1965 album, Rubber Soul. Wilson loved the album, and has long stated that he felt a competitive drive to top that album, and create something with a cohesive sound and storytelling. Wilson’s ambitions had been growing ever stronger since late 1964, when he decided to move the group’s attention away from songs relating to surfing or the “California culture”, which was center stage in the group’s music since 1961. This new direction surfaced early in 1965, with the album The Beach Boys Today!, which was the first that saw Brian stay home from the band’s busy touring schedule to complete the album with session musicians, resulting in the first of The Beach Boys’ albums that could be described as “symphonic”. Wilson also completed another album on this basis, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), which also came out in 1965. However, both of these albums still were not what Brian had in mind, and after hearing Rubber Soul at the very end of 1965, he knew he had to get to work on his next album right away.

Wilson decided to collaborate with lyricist Tony Asher, who he had known for a few years, but never worked with. The two wrote songs at incredible speed, as their partnership was full of mutual inspiration. Brian spent most of the time and money to produce the record on the music itself, recording numerous takes with the LA session musicians known today as the “Wrecking Crew”, including Carol Kaye on electric bass, and Hal Blaine on drums and percussion. After many months of making sure every detail of the album was up to Wilson’s high standards, Pet Sounds was finally released in 1966, and was recognized by fellow musicians as a masterpiece, eventually inspiring the Beatles to produce their seminal album, 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Over fifty years later, Pet Sounds is still recognized as #2 on Rolling Stone’s Top 500 albums of all time, surpassing both Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s. . . in terms of the most recent critical reviews. Personally, I relate a lot to the lyrics, and feel a very personal connection to Brian Wilson’s harmonies and the “Wall of Sound” that he arranged with the instruments provided by the Wrecking Crew. Pet Sounds is easily one of my favorite albums of all time. It shares the title with SMiLE, Wilson’s next album, which remained unreleased until 2011 (it was supposed to release in January 1967), and the Beatles albums which were part of the “cycle of inspiration” that makes the pop-rock sounds of the mid-sixties so interesting to me.

In order to get an idea of all the wonderful musical moments of the album, one must journey through each song in the Pet Sounds story. The album starts on a joyful guitar riff reminiscent of childhood, before quickly launching into Brian Wilson’s lead vocal on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” centers around the main character of the album talking to his first love, about what it would be like if she was able to stay with him longer. Although it is not stated directly, the rest of the album makes it clear that they have drifted apart somehow. This song features accordions and saxophones in addition to the band’s standard lineup of guitars, bass, and drums. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was one of the singles from Pet Sounds, and is one of the most popular songs that The Beach Boys ever made.

The jovial music of the first track is quickly countered by the second song on the album, “You Still Believe In Me”. This song opens with an a capella line sung by Brian Wilson, which sounds simply ethereal when juxtaposed against the joyful fade of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”. “You Still…” is the track which begins to paint the picture of the album’s overall concept– one of moving on from childhood, and making the rough transition to the complicated world of adults. In fact, the song was originally to be titled “In My Childhood”, illuminating precisely the story that the album as a whole is intending to tell. “You Still…” incorporates The Beach Boys signature harmonies throughout the melancholy verses, culminating in a “tag” section that sees an extended fade of the track’s opening line, this time surrounded by a swelling symphony, including timpani percussion and a clarinet, as well as many layers of overdubbed vocal harmonies. As the song gets quieter, a child’s bike horn can be heard through all the music, but it sounds distant, indicating the symbolism of youth being left behind for something totally foreign to the main character of the album.

That idea is made all the more concrete within the third track of the album– “That’s Not Me”. This song is likely the most simplistic instrumentally on the entire album, as it helps drive the story forward with its vocal performances and lyrics. The track is Mike Love’s first lead vocal on the album, which is interesting because in their past albums, Love would typically open with a traditional rock song for the band, one likely fitting in with the stereotypical “California culture” as mentioned above. However, the lyrics from Tony Asher reflect something totally different. The main character of the album, a role that is shared by all the vocal performers, has moved away from his hometown into the city to start his adult life. He speaks to all the people he once knew, and all they can tell him is how much the city has changed him. As said in the song, “[the character] soon found out that [his] lonely life wasn’t so pretty.” The lyrics and the instrumental juxtapose each other brilliantly, as the background music sounds reminiscent of the traditional song that Love was used to performing, but with new, mature lyrics from Asher. Perhaps this change was what left Love with a less favorable view of the project than Wilson, Asher or music fans, as he was reluctant to push too far from the comfortable and successful status quo that the group had achieved by that time. As “That’s Not Me” ends, another huge change occurs as the next song begins.

The fourth track on the album is “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”, and it is a song that clearly expresses heartbreak. With another lead vocal from Brian, the song captures the stunned silence of a breakup, as the characters ask themselves “Where do we go now?” without words. This song features the lushest use of the strings section– violins, cellos, and the like– which makes it highly atmospheric and totally engrossing. Much like the other songs on the album, the story being presented becomes your own memories. The production masters the Wall of Sound so well, that the Wall seems to wrap you up inside it, and you know exactly what Wilson was feeling at the time of the album’s composition. After another long fadeout, the melancholy is dissolved once again into optimism.

“I’m Waiting For The Day” opens with a hard hit of drums, and then an organ line that sounds familiar to avid fans of The Beach Boys. It is a simple love song, and focuses on the main character trying to cheer up a girl who recently went through a breakup, and who he wants to be with. It is a fun song, and has another long fadeout that makes it very easy to sing along to.

However, the next song is impossible to sing along with. “Let’s Go Away for A While”, the sixth song on the album, is one of two instrumental tracks included on Pet Sounds. It is an atmospheric tune that harkens back to “Don’t Talk” in terms of its musical themes. It doesn’t last very long before fading into the last song of the album’s first side (if listening on vinyl).

That song is Sloop John B, the first single selected for release from the album by Capitol Records, the band’s label. Sloop John B is easily the most similar song to The Beach Boys’ earlier works, as it has a beach and summer-ish theme. The song was recorded before all the others on the album, and is the only song on Pet Sounds that is a cover. The song was performed by the Kingston Trio, leading Brian Wilson to create a vocal arraignment to match the group’s style. The arrangement he came up with featured dueling lead vocals from Al Jardine (the band’s rhythm guitarist), Mike Love, and Brian Wilson. Sloop John B is certainly an outlier when compared to the rest of Pet Sounds, but is a fun way to close out Side One.

After flipping the record over, you are instantly greeted by the french horn solo that opens “God Only Knows”. For the song, the youngest of the three Wilson brothers, Carl, handles the lead vocals. “God Only Knows” is a song that sees the main character of the album pledge his love to someone, and it has the richest musical texture of any of the tunes on the album. The song ends on an epic, minute-long round between Carl, Brian, and Bruce Johnston, another vocalist in the band. Of all the songs on the album, “God Only Knows” may be the most enduring, and frequently makes critics’ and musicians’ lists of favorite songs. That includes Paul McCartney of Beatles fame, who still says that “God Only Knows” is his absolute favorite song of all time.

Once again, the next track features the one-two punch style of complicated and simpler songs being played back-to-back. “I Know There’s An Answer” is the second song of the side, and the ninth overall. It opens with a stinging line from a growling baritone saxophone, which then goes into harmonizing lead vocals shared by Love and Jardine. In one of the most purely experimental moments on the record, a high-frequency noise is played over the pre-chorus, which sounds similar to what a dog whistle must sound like to a dog (could this be THE Pet Sounds? No, but that’s a good guess!) “I Know…” began life under a different concept, due to Asher’s original lyrics. That song was meant to be called “Hold On To Your Ego”, and had an anti-drug message to it. Love rejected these lyrics, and wrote new ones himself, resulting in a song about trying to appeal to one’s friends about the need to grow up and move on in life.

The “one-two punch” structure was denied by the tenth song on the record, “Here Today”, which takes a very pessimistic view on love, as the album’s main character has apparently become jaded against the concept of young relationships after his previous struggles in that field.  This song, which is another lead vocal from Mike Love, is done in a relatively restrained manner when compared to some of the album’s other musical arrangements, but it serves as another link to the story of the album as a whole. The defeated tone of  “Here Today” spilled over into what is perhaps the darkest moment on the album.

The somber feelings of our protagonist are immediately evident in the title of the fourth track on the side two, “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”. It is a song that projects the feeling of isolation, and Wilson’s concept for the song involved feeling like a person who didn’t have anyone who understood him in the whole world. This sadness is clear through Wilson’s lead vocal, his gloomy chord progression, and the chorus section at the end of the track, in which he repeats the title in an increasingly despairing tone that almost sounds like a real cry for help.

However, the penultimate track, and Pet Sounds’ second instrumental, takes a mostly ambiguous tone. This is the album’s title track, and it has an exotic sound that was initially intended to be a James Bond theme. It lasts very briefly, and serves to disarm the listener for the downright tragic final recording from Wilson’s album, which is simply titled “Caroline, No”.

The song’s title sounds like a young child, innocently calling out to someone who was leaving him behind. Wilson’s falsetto voice was sped up to make him sound younger, and Asher’s lyrics appear to mourn the loss of a former love, who has transformed herself into someone who is unlike “the girl I used to know”, as Wilson sings. Interestingly, both Wilson and Asher had “loves lost” named Caroline, and Asher was inspired by his own experience of feeling abandoned in this way. After the song almost fades completely, the sounds of a rushing train and dogs barking come into focus. There is no one explanation to what this could mean, but my personal interpretation is that the main character has lost everything that he had returned to his childhood home to check on, like his first love and his feeling of stability. Defeated, he boards this train and doesn’t look bad, and travels on to a new life, as his old neighbor’s dogs chase him out. No matter what the sounds may represent, just this singular moment that closes out the album is enough to justify decades more of speculation from fans of music.

Having visited every song on the album, I do have a few personal favorites: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “You Still Believe In Me,” “God Only Knows,” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” are the songs that encapsulate the distinct sound aesthetic of Pet Sounds.

Even though these songs are great as independent experiences, listening to the album as a whole is a great experience, and its cohesive and narrative nature make it a unified story that will draw in the listener, and keep them coming back for years. I recommend listening to the album in its entirety, which only takes around thirty-five minutes. If trying to listen to Pet Sounds, vinyl copies are widely available, and the album is also available on CD, iTunes, and Spotify. Many fans prefer the mono mix, as this was the version that was what made the album famous, all the way back in 1966. In my opinion, a mono vinyl copy is the way to go, if you have the means. No matter which direction you take, Pet Sounds is an incredible musical achievement, and is still worthy of a listen after all these years. If you enjoy Pet Sounds, I’d be happy to talk to you about all the other great albums mentioned in this review sometime soon!