#2: The Beach Boys, "Pet Sounds" (1966)

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Everybody knows everything about this album.

I’m nobody and I know nothing.

I mean, I know every song on Pet Sounds and that’s it.

I mean, I know who Brian Wilson is. It’s difficult to be alive and remain ignorant about Brian Wilson, especially when any conversation about Pet Sounds quickly turns into a conversation about Brian Wilson, if it doesn’t just start out that way.

A conversation about Pet Sounds, which by the Beach Boys-specific transitive property is a conversation about Brian Wilson, invokes two concepts almost immediately: genius and mental illness. More concepts that follow this album around: primacy, unity, singularity, oneness. Still others: simultaneity, multiplicity, Walls of Sound, layers.

Here’s where it gets a little intuitive. The conversations around Pet Sounds remind me of a meaningful and ongoing conversation art has been having with itself forever. Something to do with mastery and mystery.

Let’s play a little game of Artificial Categories. When it comes to understanding Pet Sounds, on the one hand, we know there’s an answer. On the other, God only knows.

I know you see what I did there and I’m sorry.

I’ve constructed this too-convenient binary because I think together these conceptual categories—I Know There’s an Answer (mastery) and God Only Knows (mystery)—not only circumscribe our efforts to access something true and meaningful in the art we care about (and we care very much about Pet Sounds)—they also exist in tension within any great creative work.

Pretend for a second my gimmicky binary is a real thing. (It isn’t.) Let’s pretend we all privilege one or the other category when we think about the art we like best. (We don’t.) But humor me and take a moment to try to identify which one you most naturally point to when thinking about the success of something you love: the breathtaking execution of its craft, or the ineffability (duende) of its spirit.

When you praise a work, which of these two aspects do you articulate first?

I should prepare you: this won’t be an unbiased accounting, and it may already be clear, based on my somewhat willful ignorance as regards Brian Wilson, where my own tendencies lie. I went through a protracted breakup with the concept of mastery when I was made hip to the fact that, at least in my education, mastery was a concept that was largely defined, promoted, and protected by white men of a certain age, men whose feet I once thought I needed to sit at if I was ever to become The Best at anything. I’ve since grown wary of ideas about Bestness and how to achieve it; I see, in the world of art making, far more complexity than concepts of Bestness alone can adequately represent. My resistance to mastery is temperamental, and puts me at odds with lots of really smart people—people I nonetheless really trust and respect and look to for guidance.

No fooling: craft is absolutely essential to art making, and you won’t catch me saying it isn’t. I just think it’s good practice not to take for granted any one authority’s word on what defines excellence in craft, what constitutes mastery, and how mastery and greatness relate to one another.

Still, if I’ve learned anything from my own struggles as someone who both makes stuff and is a forever student of stuff people make, it’s that you can’t present the whole story of a work without giving thought to both its mastery and its mystery. My own love of Pet Sounds reminds me this is true.

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I Know There’s an Answer

Here’s one part of one way of looking at it.

Unlike (according to some) the plays of William Shakespeare, Pet Sounds was uncontroversially conceived of and written almost exclusively by one dude. This fact is central to the life of, and discussions about, this album.

What our dude was striving for, by most accounts—and there are many accounts—was for Pet Sounds to represent a completeness of vision: a cohesive, coherent argument, an argument that would come to be defined not by product but by process. The album, as it was conceived, was too ambitious and involved to be trotted out on stage; like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the #1 slot on this same Rolling Stone list, it was, at least to some degree, a reaction against extensive touring and live performance. To many, Pet Sounds is, in concept and execution, a producer’s album, a monument to visionary and unrepentantly elaborate process.

You all know this already. Whether or not we’ve gone in pursuit of this knowledge, we’ve picked it up somewhere along the way: Brian Wilson as poster child for uncompromising genius. (It’s a narrative ubiquitous enough to’ve been parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, in which John C. Reilly as Dewey Cox as Brian Wilson tells his bandmate to “open your mind, and learn to play the fucking Theramin.”) In most narratives, the “uncompromising” and the “genius” are more or less inseparable; the specter of pathology floats somewhere in the background.

There’s a way to talk about process that suggests a kind of anti-capitalist freedom; victory of the un-marketable, intangible Process over the market-driven tyranny of Product.

This isn’t one of them.

Conversations about process as it relates to Pet Sounds are conversations about Brian Wilson’s Process™. It’s almost as if to insinuate Pet Sounds was the result of anything other than Brian Wilson’s singular vision is to say it’s not actually the most progressive pop record of ever. The album’s relationship with singular authorship—with the Brian Wilson™ brand—is, for many of the people who talk about it, part of what makes it great.

There are a lot of versions of Pet Sounds available for purchase. Mono and stereo, remastered and instrumental and a cappella. Pure and purer. Enough versions to triangulate them all and crawl inside a definition of the genius concept. Wouldn’t it be nice.

I know there is real, honest value in studying Brian Wilson’s decision making, his unusual and painstaking approach, and the “pet sounds” that he brought into conversation in ways so wild and unprecedented we still pick them apart today. But there’s something in the fervor with which the music-loving world has tried to reverse engineer and map out his genius brain that makes me squirrelly.

Maybe it’s because these things being especially true of Pet Sounds brings out a lot of people who gravitate toward mastery, and want to discuss it at length in the context of this album. Maybe it’s the way intense study of this album intersects with its perpetual marketability. Maybe it’s because there’s a lot about Pet Sounds that, for me, defies definition—a lot that, the moment you begin to try to pin it down, slips away. Thorough autopsies of this album in terms of mastery can make discussions of its more slippery elements seem unsubstantiated, babyish—but that can’t be it, entirely.

Depth, and the drive to discuss it. Greatness, and its assignation. As far as I can tell, there’s a way of loving an album that means loving the way it showcases some elusive mastery over the conceptual. Maybe this is because it brings us that much closer to an understanding of mastery. We love assigning greatness because we love being the ones to assign it. I think, and this isn’t a new idea, that much of the writing we do about music is an attempt to grasp at mastery by proxy. The deeper and more specific we are in our observations, the more like masters we become. Left unmitigated by some humility before mystery, that seems a little bit dangerous.

I’m not exempt from this. I do it all the time. I’m doing it now.

God Only Knows

In order to write this, and without really knowing why, I asked everyone I know to talk to me about the Beach Boys. I asked in the form of putting out a call on Facebook and Instagram. That a good number of people were willing to write me long, thoughtful notes about the Beach Boys is a function of 1. People’s love of the Beach Boys, 2. People’s love of talking about the Beach Boys, and 3. Human generosity and kindness, the likes of which can’t be dimmed even by the most ruthlessly algorithmic social media apparatus.

More and more I see human generosity and kindness as essential antidotes to a capitalist value-driven world that’s rapidly depriving art and its makers of oxygen, no matter their relation to mastery or mystery. And yet here we all are, taking time to feel feelings and share them for no real reason at all. And here we are, with things like Pet Sounds to fuel us. 

I present this unattributed, multi-voiced chorus, which pertains both to Pet Sounds and to the Beach Boys more generally, with gratitude to the voices that make it up. Also among these many voices is my own.

 

It’s funny because the album felt so grown up to me, but now I see it as something transitional, something that carried me to the other side of young adulthood. Kind of like a long drug trip. Kind of like first love. 

There’s probably no greater album that is wholly adolescent without ever becoming trapped in adolescence itself—you might call it released development instead of arrested development. Its emotional intelligence is light years ahead of anything else. 

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For a long time I assumed Dennis was Brian because I knew that Brian was the band’s leader.

Dennis was by far the best-looking member. Ergo: Dennis must have been Brian.

*

This was the first album I ever bought with my “own” money. My grandfather had just given all the grandkids Sacajawea coins for Christmas and I turned around and used them to buy this album on CD from my cousin, who was no doubt selling me something that belonged to my uncle and not him.

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As a kid I heard “Sloop John B.” on New Jersey 101.5 and it was one of the first times I felt pure sadness.

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I listened to “Waiting for the Day” a million times before, during, and after my divorce. I enjoyed dissecting it from a musical standpoint because it is such a WEIRD FUCKING SONG. In every way. The dissonance really stuck with me, and the loud, angry drums (timpani?), and then suddenly mournful strings. The song demonstrates anger, bitterness, hurt, pining, an insistence of patience, hope, and pain in a way that really resonated with me at the time, and still does.

*

So I’m black and thus not supposed to like the Beach Boys but “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” makes me teary.

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I was in a Beach Boys club in 5th grade. This was the early ‘80s. There were three or four of us, all boys, of course, and we conveniently all lived near the beach. To get in, we had to sing a section of a song. I sang “I Get Around.” Extremely well, I might add. And thus my fate was sealed. 

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In Episode 67 of The Wonder Years, Winnie tells Kevin through tears that she’s met someone else. They’re about to board their buses home from a field trip. Kevin watches as Winnie boards her bus and a guy in a letterman’s jacket puts a hand on the small of her back. Kevin boards another bus, the one where he and Winnie were supposed to share “the ride home in the dark seat.” The two buses make their way into traffic, one of them peeling off to the right as the other continues straight ahead. When I first saw this episode I was the same age as Kevin and Winnie, and I got left out a lot. The depth of the loneliness I felt watching the taillights of those two buses heading off in their separate directions as “God Only Knows” played was familiar. It was a feeling I’d known forever but hadn’t looked for outside of my own body. I felt it then, and along with it a new feeling: loneliness was everywhere. You could make music, a TV show, anything out of it.

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“Sloop John B.” always makes me think of Jaws, even though it never appears in the movie.

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A cassette tape of a cartoon band called the Camp California Band that played Beach Boys tunes was my first-ever tape and I listened to it all the time on my Walkman when I was six. Nothing to me was more beautiful or full of yearning than the question, “Do you love me, do you, surfer girl?”

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I can’t listen to the Beach Boys to this day without feeling like I’m on a lazy river or bouncing around a wave pool or waiting in line for the one water slide that was in the pitch dark and that I definitely wasn’t afraid of!

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I remember my dad telling me it was the greatest album of all time. How he would croon the harmonies of “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” to me as a child, explaining to me how Brian Wilson struggled with his emotions, sadness and isolation. I didn’t realize until much later that Dad was probably talking about himself just as much. And that explanation gave me the vocabulary to start thinking about my own depression when it started. On a lighter note, I danced with my dad at my wedding to “God Only Knows,” so really, even if it’s not the best album ever made, it’s certainly been integral to everything I’ve known. 

My thoughts on music in general is that it is the closest way to reach any sort of ethereal experience and that Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys have within their harmonies moments that make me feel as if I am being soothed by an unknown spirit. The vocals hold some deep spiritual vibrations that ease my anxiety. 

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Gotta say the whole time I was having this breakdown I kept seeing Brian Wilson on the Jumbotron and thinking “You know what I’m going through.”

 

Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)

As you can probably imagine—we know each other pretty well by now—when it comes to hierarchies, I’m ambivalent. I think ranking music might be a product of a world that hasn’t fully examined why it continues to privilege mastery in the most superficial terms—Pet Sounds is the #2 Greatest Album of All Time—when all signs point to music being a playing field in which it’s impossible to determine what precise ratio of craft and magic yields capital-G Greatness. (Try comparing Prince and Kurt Cobain in terms of musical mastery alone and the formula in which greatness equals mastery dissolves.)

My ambivalence about hierarchy is downright clownish in some contexts. For instance, the context in which I’m writing about Rolling Stone’s #2 Greatest Album of All Time precisely because it’s Rolling Stone’s #2 Greatest Album of All Time. Taking a stance against ranking in America is like bringing a scathing erasure poem you made out of US News & World Report to a gunfight.

We don’t have to blow it all up to choose to exist thoughtfully and deliberately in a universe where ranking things is America’s #1 pastime. Alongside the impulse to privilege great, greater, and greatest, there are simply observations about Pet Sounds, and the hope that those observations might enrich one another without judgment. That this activity might honor the mystery we’re otherwise unable to describe.

Is it cheap to use my #2 spot on The RS 500 to suggest that we be wary of this entire enterprise? Probably. But I have a feeling those reading might understand my dilemma. I’ve loved The RS 500 most for the ways it has encouraged us to add dimension to the numerical “value” of each album on this list in the form of prose that’s as weird as we want it to be. On its face, this project appears to uphold Rolling Stone’s esteemed rankings; in practice, it acknowledges that the answers we think we have are just a jumping-off point, and invites us to attempt to make something meaningful out of what these 500 works of art have done to us in the places we find hardest to reach. To write in wonder toward what God only knows.

—Laura Eve Engel


With gratitude, in no order, to the multi-voiced chorus: Nichole Shinn, David Stuart MacLean, Meggie Bailey, Joshua Poteat, Ashley Kotania, CP, Steve Sanders, Mary Margaret Gowdey, Brian Oliu, Jessica Kirzane, Joe Pan, ML Kenney, Brad Efford, Marissa Mosk, Gregory Crosby. Thank you. If your words don’t appear here, you’ve nonetheless informed the spirit of this piece.