There was a golden triangle of influence in the mid-’60s as The Beatles began their transition from Pop superstars to Psychadelic weirdos changing music forever in the process. It began with Rubber Soul which blew the minds of pretty much everybody who heard it in 1965, not the least of which was Brian Wilson, the leader of a similar, harmony-focused boy band ancestor called The Beach Boys. The moment when he finished listening to the last song of Rubber Soul, he realized that his group’s focus on music had been all wrong, and set out to create his masterpiece: Pet Sounds. It wasn’t anywhere near as famous or world-altering, but Pet Sounds qualitatively exceeded its inspiration. Where The Beatles were often singing about random nonsense that they experienced while Day Tripping on LSD, Brian Wilson and company stuck to subject matter that all are able to understand and relate to: Loneliness. Longing. Hopelessly helpless love. Depression. Anxiety.
While the group’s harmonies are painstakingly perfect, the real star of the show is the aquatic, dreamy orchestration that ensures each track is dripping in emotion. Classics like “God only Knows” and “Caroline, No” need that strange, harpsichord track or that accordion intro. Otherwise they’d just be songs. But with consonancy and Phil Spector-influenced production (Wilson was also blown away by The Ronettes’ classic “Be My Baby”) they become fresh and unique. Even instrumentals like “Let’s Go Away for Awhile.” benefit from Brian Wilson’s focus on aural perfection; it’s a kind of musical Rorschach test, as with the absence of words, Wilson isn’t telling his listeners how to feel when they hear this song, he’s allowing them to express themselves through his art.
It’s hard to imagine what must have been going through Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys’ heads as they created this work that they had to know would always be overshadowed by The Beatles (the final piece of the golden triangle mentioned in the intro was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which The Beatles made in response to this album). My guess: they felt a range of emotions that they couldn’t really comprehend or come to terms with, so they just put it in song, accounting for the mixed emotional waves of “I’m Waiting for the Day” and “That’s Not Me.” But Brian Wilson may have had a point when he mused that he just wasn’t made for his times. Because though it lacks that sense of revolution that it created in 1966, Pet Sounds remains a satisfying trove of great music.