There is just something magical about Beach Boys harmonies. It conjures images of youth, sunny days ripe for surfing, and bright muscle cars. These are all things that come to my mind when I think about the image that drove the Beach Boys to their early success. Certainly the image was a large portion of their appeal, but it was the Phil Spector-esque sounds and dense harmonies that truly cement the group as a landmark in the musical landscape of the 1960s (Carlin).
It’s almost impossible to talk about the Beach Boys without talking specifically about Brian Wilson. His story, written like a Greek comedy, showcases equal shades of eccentric genius and tortured artist. I sense a true creative captured in the story and music of Brian Wilson; the turmoil created by the juxtaposition of expression and expectation is often the hardest burden for such artists. And so in Pet Sounds we have an album that seems to represent a major crossroads in the Beach Boys’ sound. This was a commercial album, no doubt, but the first true glimpse of the creative burden that would later prove too weighty for Brian Wilson to shoulder.
The Beach Boys’ previous sound is in no way forsaken in this album: yet it is a far more ambitious undertaking than prior albums. Brian Wilson still draws upon old musical influences such as The Four Freshmen; often invoking the rich textured harmonies that inspired him in younger days (Carlin). Yet for numerous reasons, this album strikes a much more meaningful chord. The album features a much more adventurous sonic instrumentation: fueled by the wealth of set musicians Wilson ushered into the studio to replace instrumental roles previously filled by Beach Boys (Howard, 2004). This alone gives the album a more polished and symphonic tone and quality than previous Beach boys recordings, but the real maturation of Brian Wilson’s music isn’t one related to sound per say.
I think the real impact of Pet Sounds is in its place as the first Concept Album. A musical undertaking in which all the songs in an album focus on a singular theme; in this case, it is the growth from adolescence into adulthood. As a self-admitted Prog Rock addict, I love me some concept albums. I even wrote one back in the day that I still cherish as some of my favorite music I ever produced. When Pet Sounds picked a theme of maturation, it was a declarative statement. There are no shallow love songs or odes to automobiles on this album (Howard, 2004). On the contrary, sounds on this album are introspective and definitely personal to Brian Wilson. This sole quality alone is all that is needed to permanently cement Pet Sounds’ place in the hall of pop music’s achievements. And it’s rather unfortunate that this is probably the quality that also made Pet Sounds less of a commercial success than other Beach Boys outings (Howard, 2004). But this takes us back to that crossroads of success and artistic expression. Here, we get to hear Brian Wilson strike out unshackled by people like his tyrannical father who didn’t get music outside of what was commercially viable. It actually strikes a great balance between pop sensibility and artistic grandeur, and it’s unfortunate that this is probably the best balance of the two that Wilson would ever achieve.
As someone who is also in love with the art of studio production, the mono recordings of Pet Sounds will always be my reference to what people mean when they say ‘Analog Warmth’. Some of the recordings are so warm and fuzzy it’s almost like getting a headache (or diabetes) from consuming too much sugar. As a listener, I have a hard time separating the music from it’s decade: like watching a period piece. To me, Pet Sounds is like the starting line for what would become popular musics best 100 meter dash–starting in the sixties and lasting through the seventies. I have plenty of fond memories of this album, and it’s truly amazing that its influential power hasn’t diminished one bit since the day it was released.