The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds
I was introduced to this record at 16 as the number-one album of all time via this list. My immediate reaction was, “Is that all?”
The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, apparently the greatest record of all time, initially seems a straightforward slice of baroque pop from the ‘60s, with all the associated clichés: bright guitars, big smiles, canted-O LOVE sculptures, and a desire for commitment. So happy together, how is the weather?
For context, I had just grown out of my Linkin Park phase and had just started obsessing over the Beatles and ‘good’ music. However, my love of distorted guitar, minor melodies, and a thick spinal tap backbeat thrived. To encounter this melodically driven, bright and shiny pop album about love was, to put it kindly, frustrating. For seven years that disappointment was my opinion of this record. I actually disliked it more once I went to film school and adoration of the record was an obligation, not a personal choice.
Then, several things happened: I got audiophile headphones, I moved out on my own, and I listened to one-third of this list, across all genres of music. The pigments and hues of my musical palette, by which I judged an album’s value, expanded to include timbre, instrumentation, rhythm, volume, mixing, dynamics, and covered a wider swath of genres.
That is not, however, how I finally ended up enjoying this record though; the reason is incredibly cliché and perfect, in context: I found my Beatrice Portinari.
….Let me explain.
During my first year of living on my own – my freshman year of adulthood--, moving to Boston to become somebody, I was alone 98% of my days for 9 months; in that isolation –lonely, frustrating and often terrifying -- I found a girl who awoke in me what Beatrice aroused in Dante: that passion that makes artists and emperors devote themselves to Divine Comedies and Taj Mahals. I found her and a spark ignited; in that, lonely longing, I heard what had been missing on this record for me: Brian Wilson’s desire to feel loved and whole.
Don’t get me wrong, this album is absurdly ambitious and well executed musically: instrumentally, it is the only perfect wall of sound ever put to tape. The concept of a wall of sound, created by Phil Spector, is an oft-misunderstood idea where a million instruments are given microscopic parts: two guitars will play one opposing chord, while a digeridoo plays counterpoint, and then drums and a theremin will double with the main vocal line of a four part harmony; meanwhile a sitar, a bass, and a vibraphone will match the other parts. When done properly, the result is a single instrument: e pluribus unum…or prosaically, a wall. Often though, it is just an unnecessarily bombastic orchestral sound (see: Let it Be, woof).
Brian Wilson’s vision of this idea is successful precisely because it lies in the shadows: the wall is so perfectly built that you can only parse it out by actively listening for it. I didn’t hear the multiple Theremin parts on the album until I got really good headphones that allowed the instruments to breathe. Not only is it invisible, but it’s always in service of the song as a whole; the entire album is composed to function holistically and, despite the ambition of its construction, maintains a strict adherence to accessible 3-minute pop songs.
But, for me, it’s the sadness of the music, and the dark emotions on the lyrics – in which I see my struggles – that I genuinely connect to it. Hearing Wilson speak about his desire for the one, his lack of trust in himself, his fear that love won’t last, and his hopeless desire for a girl just out of reach, for whom his love is infinite and eternal, speaks to me deeply.
I still don’t love it. In fact, as far as emotional resonance goes, it’s middle of the road. Despite how much I can admire that complete Wall of Sound, and see myself in the lyrics, I’m never wholly in the music; the sense of distance is frustrating, and the lack of a solid rhythm section – as it is a piece of the wall, all in all – gives the album a boring static quality and leaves my mind to wander.
But then, I take a walk in the park alone with it, musing on Beatrice Portinari.
And I can certainly say I like it very much, even if it isn’t the greatest.
Until God Only Knows What I’d do without You.