Pet Sounds is very good. Stop the presses. The Beach Boys’ beloved 1966 classic gives you a warm and fuzzy feeling that very few records can match. The harmonies are wonderful, the instrumentation is charming, and, well, everything just sounds rather bloody marvellous. There’s a lot to love, and little to dislike. Is it as extraordinary as so often cited? Perhaps not. Is it as adventurous or outright interesting as other Beach Boys records? I would say certainly not.
The album is rightly kept on a pedestal. It’s remarkable to hear the influence it’s had on all types of music: pop, rock, hip-hop, metal, jazz, and everything in between. However, let’s not pretend the record is perfect. The lyrical content is generic and overly simplistic. Sometimes worse than that, as seen on “Caroline, No”: ‘where did your long hair go?/where is the girl I used to know/how could you lose that happy glow?/Oh Caroline, no’. Of course, Pet Sounds is of a different time, but there’s a bitter ‘boys club’ feeling that I can’t quite shake. The album is supposedly following an emotional arc that revolves around love, but I see these songs more as fleeting thoughts of a young man still finding his way in life. It’s very real, which I suppose leads to inevitable flaws.
Despite some lyrical shortcomings, Brian Wilson is, of course, one of contemporary music’s greatest songwriters. Whilst his work on Pet Sounds is mostly excellent, it still feels slightly restrained. It may not be nearly as accessible as this, but I feel that Smiley Smile is a greater display of his talents, with arrangements that transcend the realms of pop music. It’s here, however, where his ideas became so universally admired. Production techniques are still cited, replicated and reimagined in many of todays most celebrated records.
Not many people can wield musical magic quite like Wilson. He can establish more feeling in a single chord change than some artists can manage in a lifetime’s work. To create such a stirring sensation in pop music is, quite simply, monumental. Whilst I don’t consider Pet Sounds to be a masterpiece, I’d be hard pressed to think of a single album that has impacted modern music to the same extent. It’s essential listening for all.
8 out of 10
I didn’t remember Pet Sounds feeling like such a transitional album. Although the music has moved on from the chummy surfer rock of the Beach Boys’ formative years, it hasn’t yet arrived at the harmony-filled halls of Brian Wilson’s imagination. It’s caught in the middle. Man-child music.
It fits that an ad man was involved in the songwriting. Pet Sounds comes off like a jingle. One big lovey dovey hooby dooby yeah yeah yeah jingle. That’s by no means a bad thing, just stunted somehow. Childlike innocence can be pure… or it can be childish. For every “God Only Knows” or “Sloop John B” skipping towards the heavens there’s an “I’m Waiting for the Day” trudging along like a cheap fairground ride on a rainy day.
The harmonies are delightful of course, managing to float above surprisingly stilted production. Maybe this was the aha moment, but it wasn’t the arrival. Although it’s certainly a lovely listen, the real magic of Pet Sounds was showing there was much, much more to come from the Beach Boys.
8 out of 10
While I often have a touch of lyrical deafness, Pet Sounds gives me a real flare-up and, at the risk of sounding like a crotchety senior citizen, I think that might be because there are a lot of sweet-nothings and good feeling and not a lot more.
But wait! Hold onto your rotten tomatoes for a moment, you can hurl them at me later. I’m a big fan of this album. Set aside the nuzzled shoulders and never-ending kisses and there are some intriguing instrumental moments across the tracklist. “Let’s Go Away For A While” and “Pet Sounds” are some of my favourite moments here. The former shimmers and shines like a summer day, with a nonchalant horn section and warm strings. The latter shimmies along with a sultry guitar and a bossa nova beat, confidently strutting around for two minutes and change. They come out of nowhere, and they’re much appreciated every time they do so.
Listen elsewhere though, is that a solo oboe in “I’m Waiting For The Day”? A harpsichord and a honking horn in “You Still Believe In Me”? What about that french horn in “God Only Knows”? Across Pet Sounds there’s a fantastic variety of instrumentation, with an inclination towards woodwind and strings that often gives tracks a warm, fuzzy, quaint village green feeling, which is quite a feat for a bunch of Californians.
Pet Sounds was a huge achievement and has a well-deserved prestige and legacy, though in my opinion the lyrics often become surplus to requirements. The instrumental cuts only highlight that further, making me wish we’d “Gone Away For A While” longer and told Caroline more firmly, ‘No’. Nevertheless, it’s excellent listening, and none of my nitpicks have stopped me re-spinning this record. Still, dive elsewhere into the Beach Boys discography and you’ll likely find something just as fun to listen to and a lot more engaging.
Okay, feel free to let those tomatoes loose.
8 out of 10