I don’t cry when I see live music. I don’t really cry much in general—it’s not that I’m emotionally unaffected by performances or art. Quite the contrary. But in the setting of a live performance, I’m more likely to be caught up by the adrenaline, or just rocking out or something—most of the bands I see are pretty loud, so that has a lot to do with it. But there have been two moments in recent history where I could feel the lump in my throat growing. One was Neutral Milk Hotel, which caught me a little off guard, admittedly. And the other was Brian Wilson, performing Pet Sounds.
I have a long history with Pet Sounds, and while at some point in my youth I might have underrated the album to a naive, contrarian degree, I’m here to say it’s a masterpiece. It’s worth all of the acclaim—all of it. Because it’s a simply breathtaking and emotionally vulnerable piece of music that somehow still perfects the pop song. In fact, while I’ll readily admit that The Beatles’ catalog is stronger on the whole than the Beach Boys’, I like Pet Sounds more than any Beatles album. (I know I’ve said something to this effect before, but with Pet Sounds it goes well beyond mere hyperbole or mood-based preference.)
I first got into Pet Sounds in college. The album was almost a soundtrack of sorts to my college years, simply because it was a source of bonding between me and many of my friends. When I was assistant arts editor at the Daily Aztec, we took a field trip to recreate the cover photo at the San Diego Zoo (which is where it was originally taken, btw). We had debates over the best song on the album, which is a debate that I continue to have with people (from a place of love of the album, naturally). I’m generally of the opinion that people who think “Sloop John B” is the worst song don’t know what they’re talking about, but everything here is perfect, so it doesn’t matter.
My own personal favorite is “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” because it’s just gorgeous, and every time I listen to it, I hear something new. It was also featured in an episode of Mad Men that might be my favorite use of pop music in a TV show. Roger Stirling takes acid and the sequence that follows is a beautifully shot piece of surrealism that lines up perfectly with the song.
But there are so many other songs that resonate with me. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” is such a tender song that it gives me goosebumps. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was my favorite for a long time because it’s such a perfectly bittersweet pop song. It sounds so hopeful, but there’s more than a twinge of hopelessness to it. “You Still Believe In Me” is another that balances sweetness with despair, and it’s a song I admit to relating to more than I’m comfortable with. I’m not someone that struggles with depression or anxiety to the degree that it prevents me from being able to function, but I have my moments of self-doubt, insecurity and sadness—one just a couple nights ago that kind of sent me to a bad place. In fact, I went out to see a show that night and it was weird, since I was feeling so antisocial—to the point I didn’t actually talk to some of my friends who were there, but you know, sometimes you just need your space. But I hear Brian Wilson express these feelings, and it makes me feel more human. Here’s this musical genius, someone who changed the course of musical history, and he struggled with mental health issues (which were sadly taken advantage of by predatory people in his life). Much like Wilson expresses in the song, though, I have a supportive and patient partner in my life who keeps me from feeling that way for long. (Side note: Back around 2000 or so, Q Magazine put this on a list of essential “male angst” albums, which…UGH, c’mon.)
And then there’s “God Only Knows.” When Wilson performed this song on his Pet Sounds 50th anniversary tour in 2016, I almost couldn’t hold back the waterworks. Even listening to it on vinyl gives me a lump in my throat. And I’m sure I’m not the only one.
There’s a stereotype of Pet Sounds as the sort of quintessential critics’ record, and there’s a funny anecdote from college that kind of reminds me of why that is. In Economics class (in which I fared pretty poorly), there was a guy in his forties seated behind a doofy frat boy, and for some reason they got to talking about music. The older guy was talking about how he loved the Stooges and Iggy Pop and Bowie and T. Rex and all manner of essential rock stuff from the ’70s. In other words, he had good taste. So the frat boy says “Do you like the Beach Boys?”, to which the other guy says “Oh yeah! Pet Sounds is one of my all-time favorite albums!” And the frat kid says “Never heard of it.” Then an awkward silence.
Pet Sounds isn’t necessarily like The Bodyguard Soundtrack—it’s not in everyone’s collection. But its reputation is a large one. In fact, I only bought this on vinyl a couple years ago, and a friend of mine, who is a musician for what it’s worth, said “Even *I* have that one.” I do, too. Perhaps a bit later than it should have been. But it’s one whose music is a part of my life, whether it’s in every format I need it to be or not.
Sound Quality: Great