The Album Study: The Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds' (1966)
Updated: Dec 2, 2022
“I was going for something I wanted to hear, and I wanted to feel. A feeling of joy, a great feeling of great joy" - Brian Wilson
I have been eager to write about Pet Sounds for a while. But much has been said on this Beach Boys 1966 classic, so including it as the final Martinmas Album Study required additional support. The entirety of the Arts & Culture team on The Saint has come together as an ode to Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson’s masterpiece.
Pet Sounds was Wilson’s personal passion project. While the rest of the band toured, Wilson, who famously struggled with mental health and drug addiction at this time, co-wrote and solely produced the album. Prior to their release of Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys maintained a reputation as one of the leading male musical groups, accompanying bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. But with Pet Sounds, Wilson did something extraordinary. A product of, yes, Wilson’s creative prowess, but maybe even more so of his perseverance — an example of wanting to give something joyful to the world as means for personal survival. This underlying intent only adds to the beauty of the composition. Candid, introspective, and riddled with complex harmonies and orchestration, the 1966 album ushered in for the group a new layer of musical ingenuity. Writers on the Arts & Culture section take a look into almost all the album’s tracks to honor and scrape the surface of what is — some might argue — one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
'Wouldn't It Be Nice'
David: “Rooted in innocence, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ reflects the adolescent pain of being stuck in childhood, particularly of a young couple who cannot cement their monogamist desires in marriage. They seemingly edge closer to their idyllic world ‘the more they talk about it’ but are subsequently kept in place by their age.
Iridescent and bouncy, the song masks woe with the doo-wop sound, creating an innovative record that modulates across tempo amidst those venerable and unmistakable harmonies.
The album’s opening track is truly beautiful and particularly the song’s intro on a 12-string guitar, reminiscent of a fairground organ, sets the tone for an album laden with youthful and limitless self-expression.”
'You Still Believe in Me'
Anna: “Although a definite change in tempo from the opening track, ‘You Still Believe In Me’ is an orchestral piece just as much as it is a pop song. In The Beach Boys’ redefinition of the pop record, they used instruments in a radical way, with Tony Asher giving the opening a spiritual feel through plucking the piano’s strings with a bobby pin. Depth is added through the use of tricycle bells and bicycle horns, references to the sounds of childhood.
Gone is the optimism of ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’. In strikingly confessional and self-aware lyrics, Wilson laments his failings in his marriage and his disbelief at his partner’s unwavering loyalty. The heartbreaking final line “I wanna cry” swells into an ethereal coda of almost choral vocal harmonies. Through the vulnerable expression of self-doubt, ‘You Still Believe In Me’ is emblematic of the melancholy that pervades the album”.
'Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)'
Naina: “This track stands out among the album’s tracks as a softer and slower ballad. The song is about non-verbal professions of love and “one of the sweetest songs [Wilson] ever sang” according to himself. This theme is reinforced lyrically as “don’t talk” is echoed throughout the song over close harmonies, reflecting a sort of innocence of the request”.
'I'm Waiting For The Day'
Thomas: "This one is undeniably an album track, but it's a good one. So grounded in the place and time the Beach Boys were writing in, it fits snugly between the two more recognisable songs. Lyrically deep but musically light and "good vibes" this song doesn't stand out from the album, it enhances and encapsulates it".
'Sloop John B'
Fiona: “When I was six, I had a pirate-themed birthday and my dad burned a mixtape of various nautical mishaps, including ‘Sloop John B’. Originally a folk song from the Bahamas, it took less than 24 hours from the initial idea to modify the ballad to the track’s completion. With an upbeat melody and melancholic lyrics, the song’s narrator is practically holding onto the ship’s deck for dear life, begging to go home.
“This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on”, Brian Wilson laments as he flips traditional sailing woes into an ode to psychedelic misadventures. It sonically mimics a rollercoaster of emotions, as the Beach Boys themselves dramatically fling themselves into swimming pools and inflatable rafts in the music video. Whether you’re bargaining with God in a living room or on the high seas, ‘Sloop John B’ is a testament to choppy waters everywhere”.
'God Only Knows'
Helen: "It’s always hard for me to write about my favourite songs. I have much to say and yet nothing at all, and I fear insufficient analysis. “God Only Knows” is my favorite love song, most definitely. It showcases Carl Wilson’s aptitude for melodic singing. There’s no shortage of instrumental bravery in the track, defined mainly by sleigh bells, strings, drums, and harpsichord. And it’s also consistently cited as Paul McCartney’s favorite song.
Goes without saying but I’ll just reiterate here for my own sanity. Wilson’s title line “God Only Knows what I’d be without you” is daring, in the sense that referencing God in 1960s Rock n Roll was not the norm, and overwhelmingly surreal — underscoring this notion that there’s a love so strong, almost precise, that only the ultimate higher power knows its alternative".
Lucy: "One of the last songs recorded for Pet Sounds, ‘Here Today’, presents itself as a pessimistic oracle of love, the lyrics warning the listener of the fleeting nature of relationships and the unavoidable heartbreak that come with them, before the narrator reveals himself to be the ex-lover of the listener's new girl. The musical composition is as volatile as the relationship with the curious employment of an electric bass guitar as the lead instrument. Indeed, Wilson labelled the song “an assertive track” due to the “utilisation of basses played up higher.” as well as the masculine quality of the trombones. Furthermore, Wilson confessed that, ‘Here Today’ “was probably one of the mystery songs on the album.” and rightly so. It is, afterall, the tension between the narrator’s cynicism and the precious way in which love is presented that makes the song so striking".
'I Just Wasn't Made For These Times'
Zainab: "Arguably the most melancholy track on the album, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” encompasses the inescapable feelings of isolation and hopelessness that accompany the paths of growing up and finding one’s place in society. It’s a song that closely resonates with Wilson's personal life. In 1995, it provided the title of Don Was' documentary of Wilson's life, as well as the title of the film's soundtrack.
Mirroring its title, the track feels nostalgic with its constant build-up and layered texture: the chorus itself features Spanish-sung backing vocals: ‘Oh, ¿cuándo seré? Un día seré’ (‘When will I be? One day I will be’). But what is most poignant about this song is the simple relatability of each lyric. The lines: ‘each time something good happens again… what goes wrong’ cuts through to the timeless nature of the song. It is perhaps for this that it remains so beloved amongst fans".
Calla: Brian Wilson’s first solo piece and ranked 214 by Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”, ‘Caroline, No’, is perfectly fitting for the closing track of Pet Sounds, an album dissecting the battle between adulthood and youth. In this track, youthful innocence is lost, and adulthood is encroached.
The lyrics are inspired by a past relationship of Asher’s, who, depicted as a disillusioned young man, pines after the innocence lost by his former love interest. The heartbreakingly desperate “Oh, Caroline, you break my heart” touches the soul and cradles the listener's heart as the fear of ageing and change is unburied and evoked.
The listener themselves is led through a path of disillusionment – the listener is tricked; whilst the melody suggests upbeat jazz-like melody, the lyrics are paradoxical in the subject. Even the voice of Wilson is deceiving; his voice, sped up by one semitone, creates the effect of a younger and more youthful sound.
A final thought: the track perhaps provokes a rather sinister undertone – female innocence and beauty are pedestaled, and worldly experience is the killer".
The Album Study’s purpose, above all, was to restore the everyday appreciation of the album as an art form. This semester, The Saint has written on four albums so far: Coming Home by Leon Bridges, Boxer by the National, Sound of Silver by LCD Soundsystem, and Coat of Many Colors by Dolly Parton. The final of the season required something particularly powerful. The Arts and Culture team arrived at Pet Sounds. Wilson’s work lasts as an example of reflection and fluid instrumentality, one refreshingly reminiscent of its own time period. The composition transformed not just its audience, but also the Beach Boys — it gives us just what it gave them: a newfound understanding of their own capabilities and honest writing.
And, there is something to be said, as always, for artists who gift genius to evoke joy. The Arts & Culture team thanks Pet Sounds for the quintessential delivery.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons