Pet Sounds is generally regarded to be one of the best albums of all time. Uniquely, it tells the story of a relationship between two people from an adolescent point of view. It describes in ever despairing detail, how two people who felt their love would last forever can grow apart until all that’s left is despair.
The opening song, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is bright, breezy, sunny and optimistic. The singer is looking forward to the time when he and his girlfriend can spend the night together. “You know it’s gonna make it that much better when we can say goodnight and stay together.” This is the positive time before a relationship starts that many people hark back to after things have gone wrong.
“You Still Believe In Me” describes someone who is very self critical and is trying hard to please his other half in order to preserve their relationship. Is it possible to rescue a relationship without being true to yourself? When Brian Wilson sings “I try hard to be more what you want me to be” in a heartbreaking way, it is the sound of someone wrestling with how he is when he is apart from his girlfriend. “But I can’t help how I act when you’re not here with me”. Which is his true self? The one where he is with his girlfriend or the one when he is apart?
In “That’s Not Me”, the singer has tried different personae but has come to the conclusion that he is lost without his girlfriend. “I had to prove that I could make it alone now but that’s not me. I wanted to show how independent I’d grown now but that’s not me.” Later he realises that he is dependent on her and helpless without her. “I’m a little bit scared cause I haven’t been home in a long time.“
The high point of the relationship comes in the beautiful harmony-rich song “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)”. The magnificence of this song is tinged with a sense of foreboding as the seeds of a doomed relationship are sown with a realisation that their happiness is not founded on good communication. “There are words we both could say but don’t talk – put your head on my shoulder”. This is not how lasting relationships are built.
The truth begins to emerge in “I’m Waiting For The Day.” She has had her heart broken by someone else and he is waiting for her to love him back. “He hurt you then, but that’s all gone. I guess I’m saying you’re the only one.” Is he pushing too hard? Is he rescuing her out of compassion or desire? Can this relationship work?
“Let’s Go Away For A While” takes a breath – a pause in the relationship before things start to go wrong. It’s an instrumental piece that uses twelve violins, a piano, four saxophones, a vibraphone, guitar, two bass guitars and drums. In 1966, Brian Wilson claimed that this was the finest piece of art he had ever made. Neil Young loved it so much that he included it on his “Journey Through The Past” soundtrack in 1973. It was also used in the excellent 2017 film “Baby Driver”. It was originally intended that this song have vocals and an early working title was “Let’s Go Away for Awhile (And Then We’ll Have World Peace)”
Although “Sloop John B” fits onto the album musically, it disrupts the flow of the narrative. It describes a person who is confused and is seeking comfort so it could be argued that it fits in lyrically. It was only included on the album because the record label wanted a hit single. Which only goes to show how wrong some people can be because the opening song on Side Two is one of pop music’s greatest achievements.
It’s a shock to realise that Capitol Records decided that the A side of the next Beach Boys single should be “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows” was the B side. In The UK, the sides were reversed and it reached Number Two in the Charts. Paul McCartney has said that “God Only Knows” is his favourite song of all time. He said “‘God Only Knows’ is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it. It’s really just a love song, but it’s brilliantly done. It shows the genius of Brian. I’ve actually performed it with him and I’m afraid to say that during the sound check I broke down. It was just too much to stand there singing this song that does my head in and to stand there singing it with Brian.” The song is beautifully sung on the record by Carl Wilson. The arrangements is complex yet accessible and the harmonies at the climax of the song are incredible. As Paul McCartney says, it’s a love song but it’s tinged with desperation. “If you should ever leave me, well, life would still go on, believe me. The world could show nothing to me. So what good would living do me?” He is so much in love with the girl that he would seriously contemplate suicide without her.
“I Know There’s An Answer” was originally titled “Hang On To Your Ego” before Mike Love put his foot down and refused to sanction a song that dealt with the side effects of taking LSD. The song deals with someone who is refusing any help or advice from anyone else. “I know so many people who think they can do it alone. They isolate their heads and stay in their safety zones. Now what can you tell them and what can you say that won’t make them defensive?” How can you give advice to someone when all that will do is make them become stubborn and unwilling to do as you suggest?
“Here Today” is an overlooked classic. It’s one of the very best Beach Boys songs. It’s as complex as “Good Vibrations”, it’s as melodious as “God Only Knows” and it’s as sad and as meaningful as “In My Room”. Everything’s gone wrong now and the relationship is over. Cynicism about love is all pervasive. “A brand new love affair is such a beautiful thing but if you’re not careful think about the pain it can bring“. His girl has left him for someone else and he is warning the new boyfriend that she won’t stay with him because “you’ve got to keep in mind love is here today and it’s gone tomorrow. It’s here and gone so fast.”
Now things are going from bad to worse. The end of the relationship makes the singer wonder whether he really belongs in this world. He is trying to fit in but it’s no use. “Each time things start to happen again I think I got something good goin’ for myself but what goes wrong” “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” is bleak beyond description. Brian Wilson takes lead vocals and there’s no comforting him.
The end of the story requires a time for reflection, a pause for thought and the instrumental “Pet Sounds” allows for that.
But wait, there’s an epilogue and it’s the saddest song you’ll ever hear. “Where did your long hair go? Where is the love we used to know?” The relationship has finished and the singer accepts that but it’s so hard to think back to the happiness he felt in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” Brian Wilson is the only member of the group that sings or plays on the song. The despair at the loss of innocence, not only in ‘Caroline’ but in the singer is heartbreaking. “Could I ever find in you again the things that made me love you so much then? Could we ever bring ’em back once they have gone? Oh Caroline, no.” As an instrumental passage fades out all that we are left with is a train passing through a crossing with a barking dog running hopefully but helplessly after it.
“I remember how you used to say you’d never change, but that’s not true.”