The Beach Boys – Pet Sounds – Review

The Beach Boys

Pet Sounds reissue (Capitol)
by Nik Rainey

“I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times (stereo mix)”/”Wouldn’t It Be Nice (vocals only)” b/w “Here Today (stereo backing track)” (Sub Pop/Capitol 7″) Pet Sounds (Capitol reissue)

Here they are, Sub Pop’s newest signing, a band with worse family relations than Oasis, a more reclusive leader than Pearl Jam, a theremin just like Jonny Spencer, more overall heft than Screaming Trees, and enough substance abuse, creative breakdown, and doomed brilliance to supply a rehab wing full of Cobains… ladies and gentlemen… The Beach Boys!?!

Yes, strange as it may sound, the indie firm of Pavitt and Poneman has made the most of its licensing deal with Capitol and resurrected three precious pieces of the ever-elusive California dream – altered (not quite alternate) versions of three of Brian Wilson’s most plangent visions of Adolescence Eternal, from the sessions of his classic everlasting, 1966’s Pet Sounds. Stop your sniggering right now, hepholes; forget the images of indefatigable summer tours and the same dozen songs run through mechanically by a bunch of paunchy pop star animatrons that the b(r)and name conjures up. You only wish your fave crunch `n’ yowl combo could ever get within spitting range of the high artistic limb that Wilson, for one brief but shining mid-’60s moment, shimmied out onto. Pet Sounds remains one of the greatest albums of the ’60s (and therefore one of the greatest pop albums ever), the culmination of the blissful ache of the Boys’ best singles (“In My Room,” “Don’t Worry Baby”) into a full-fledged, personal/universal Statement. You can talk up yer Sgt. Pepper all you like, but that album comes off today like the brittle antique it is, an attempt at Serious Art that ended up making rock safe for adults and led to endless troughs of smug prog-muck and superstar pretension. Pet Sounds, on the other hand, hits a balance between teenage romantic melancholy and sophisticated grown-up sound with consummate perfection – an artistic summit from which the only possible direction may have been down, but what a breathtaking view.

To call Wilson a genius is not an overstatement, but it’s also not quite as kind as it sounds. Geniuses, after all, aren’t the most reliable creatures in the world; they’ve been dealt something far beyond even their own comprehension, which makes it easy to squander or be destroyed by the jealous, opportunistic hacks in their midst. (That one goes out to Mike Love, Brian’s cousin and the Sallieri to his Amadeus, a man who deserves whatever retribution can be brought down on him, if not for his active role in wrestling control of the band away from Brian and turning it into the sad museum piece it is today, then at least for writing “Kokomo.”) Wilson was blessed with the ability to turn his sad longings into glorious music, like Phil Spector’s three-minute teen symphonies as filtered through the soul of the lonely, awkward kid soaking them up in his bedroom, and the waste of that ability is made even sadder when you realize that he was painfully aware of it even as it happened. Wilson’s recently-penned liner notes to Capitol’s PS reissue make this point almost offhandedly – buried in the middle of an otherwise innocuous sentence describing the album’s recording, the phrase “… totally exhausting some of my musical creativity” is as chilling as a poke in the eye with a cold finger. The thought that artistic potency is finite and irreplaceable is so bleak and dark that few dare even think it. But there it is, and you need only follow Wilson’s southward trajectory in the years following this record to prove its veracity – a brilliant single (“Good Vibrations”) that is to this album what “Strawberry Fields Forever” is to Sgt. Pepper, a staggeringly ambitious concept album (Smile) that collapsed under its own weight and shall remain forever unfinished, and occasional bursts of glory (“Sail On Sailor,” The Beach Boys Love You [a last-gasp record so eccentric that it’ll render your whole Daniel Johnston collection superfluous]) dotting the path to the bottomless sandbox of wasted talent. Drugs, madness, and a Svengali-like therapist all played their part in the decline, and though Wilson has returned at least partway to the land of the living, the fact remains: the spark has left him as definitively as any of his O.D.’d peers.

There are few tales as pathos-riddled in all of rock as his, which only adds to the poignance of these records, but they stand up even without the backstage psychodramas. The Sub Pop single is merely exquisite addenda – hearing “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” in stereo for the first time points up the intricacies in B.W.’s arrangements, hearing “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” without its backing track reminds you of how gloriously the Boys could harmonize, and “Here Today”‘s vocal-less backing track just revels in the lusciousness. (And for the wealthy obsessive, Capitol’s Pet Sounds Sessions box contains 4 CDs’ worth of such niggling delights.) But if you’re still wondering what all the mulch-mouth is about or just haven’t immersed yourself in it in a while, frug on down to your local sound emporium, hold your head up high and, without shame, pick up the Pet Sounds reissue. When you play it, think of what might have been had big Bri not let the last wave roll over him, what effulgent paeans to the bobbysoxer muse he might have given us. Or just hear for yourself what could be the only thing Paul McCartney and Joe Queer agree on.