Brian Wilson Alone: The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds 50 Years Later

The eleventh Beach Boys LP, Pet Sounds, was recorded from July 12, 1965 through April 13, 1966. Released by Capitol Records on May 16, 1966, the record marked a turn in the career of the popular American rock group. Marked by the band’s penchant for glittery California pop, Pet Sounds was singular in its self-conscious appraisal of the appeal of popular music in general. Produced, arranged, and largely written and composed by central band member Brian Wilson while on leave from touring with the rest of the band, Pet Sounds proved divisive among general audiences. Despite peaking at #2 in the UK Top 40 Album Charts, the record was discordant to American ears, and it was only decades later that Pet Sounds was recognized as an institution in rock and popular music unto itself, with Brian Wilson being revered since that time as something of a prodigy in pop music composition.

Recorded against broad symphonic arrangements that encompass wildly experimental sounds and textures, Pet Sounds managed to go where no rock album of the 1960s had gone before. Even with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones quickly mounting their British Invasion of global radio airwaves, The Beach Boys’ eleventh album stands among the very best records of the 1960s in retrospect. In its use of sound effects and musical textures as sonically incongruent as dogs barking, trains whistling, Electro-Theremins humming, flutes twittering, harpsichords strumming, Coca-Cola cans clanging, and Hawaiian-sounding musical instruments twanging, Pet Sounds presented a steep learning curve to listeners hearing the record for the first time in 1966. Without the context of some fifty-years of popular music to fall back on, Pet Sounds is a hard first listen.

What has become readily apparent in the fifty years since the album’s initial release is just how intensely felt the entire record is from the point of view of its chief sonic architect. Brian Wilson, divorced from collaboration with his father and brothers, examines his own underlying alienation on Pet Sounds through deeply personal and lyrical songwriting. Gone are the days of Surfin’ Safari and Surfer GirlPet Sounds sees Brian Wilson retreat further and further into himself. But rather than resulting in an overly confessional or auto-biographical recording, the album rings with the baroque clarity of dysphoria universally felt.

Before the singer/songwriter was diagnosed with manic depression and schizoaffective disorder, Pet Sounds was already an intense spiritual odyssey of the life of a mind in a state of gradual decline. With several singles lending themselves to an underlying tension bordering on agoraphobic paranoia, Pet Sounds is an intensely melancholic recording disguised as a pop album. In some ways, one could find trace elements of Pet Sounds in early emo albums of the 2000s, with Weezer’s Pinkerton and Death Cab for Cutie’s Transatlanticism immediately springing to mind.

The Beach Boys were still singing relatively upbeat lyrics on their eleventh studio recording, but at their very basic and fundamental level these songs were some of the most devastating confessions of anti-social tendencies ever put to music. To this day, “God Only Knows” might be the most accurate lyrical depiction of romantic intimacy ever, with its foreboding acknowledgement of the ephemera of affection never placed entirely out of sight. Echoed by the fleeting salvation of “I Know There’s An Answer,” and preceded by the pleading prayer of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” Pet Sounds in its entirety simultaneously stimulates and depresses. In short, Pet Sounds is the schizoaffective record of the mid-twentieth century, and the most personal pop recording of the 1960s era.

After Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson began to come apart as his own mental sanity became a personal and professional obstacle to contend with in the decades to come. Over the course of recording his intended follow-up to Pet Sounds as a Beach Boys record, the early recording sessions of Smile were eventually abandoned altogether. Smiley Smile was eventually released on September 18th, 1967 composed of remnants from the initial Smile recordings to the confusion of most critics and casual listeners. But since having gone on to be regarded as something of a cult-hit among audiophiles and the cornerstone of ambient music, Smiley Smile gave rise to the final 2004 re-imagined recording Brian Wilson Presents Smile, which won the singer/songwriter greater acclaim and his first Grammy. But it was in Pet Sounds where the ideas and experimentation behind Smile first gave rise to one of the greatest pop musicians and recordings of all time.

On the album’s fiftieth anniversary, Pet Sounds and Brian Wilson are larger than life and the circumstances that gave them birth. In last summer’s stirring bio-drama Love & Mercy, the legend of Brian Wilson and Pet Sounds was cast against the melodramatic tapestry of Hollywood mythology. The film starred John Cusack and Paul Dano as the two dueling versions of Brian in real-life. Dano portrayed the initial spark of genius from the 1960s, while Cusack filled the role of the over-medicated casualty of the 1980s. Love & Mercy capably manages to uphold the legacy of Pet Sounds and Smile and stands as further proof of the enduring relevancy of the music of Brian Wilson fifty years later.

But Brian Wilson is more than a character of the popular imagination. Pet Sounds is a timeless evocation of an American melancholy imbued with a certain spiritual wanting that still proves universal. When first released in 1966, the record alienated listeners with its unrepentant compulsion towards personal confession. On Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson continues to divulge certain truths that some might not wish to know, but which everyone has at one time or another shared. Pet Sounds turns fifty years old today, but in its continuing cultural relevancy and lyrical symphonies of the soul it doesn’t sound older than twenty. Brian Wilson, despite all of his eccentricities and mental incapacities, is among the greatest living legends of our time, and Pet Sounds is perhaps his masterwork and the greatest Beach Boys album of the group’s near fifty years as a pop band, even if their eleventh LP continues to confound many a first listener.