Masterpiece

Is ‘Pet Sounds’ The Best Record Ever?

Unlike most iconic pop music, the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds never hits you over the head with its greatness. But as it turns 50, its enduring beauty only glows brighter.

I have at least three copies of Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys album that turns 50 this year. I have a version included with a British boxed set that includes all the material the band recorded for Capitol. I have a vinyl Japanese pressing of the stereo mix. And there’s a CD boxed set devoted to just this one album, complete with the version as released in stereo, various backing tracks, and a mono mix of the entire record. Does that make me a fanatic?

I don’t think so, but then I know genuine Pet Sounds fanatics, and in that crowd I’m just a tourist passing through.

For all I know, there are people whose job descriptions include “Pet Sounds analytics.” Nor would I be surprised to learn that it is the most written-about record album of all time. Certainly it is the subject of numerous books, thousands of magazine articles, and several film and television documentaries. Its Wikipedia entry goes on at dissertation length. Fan boys and fan girls just can’t say enough.

What’s interesting about that, though, is that unlike most records that get singled out for dissection, Pet Sounds ignited no movements, broke no social taboos, set no styles. It didn’t even sell in massive numbers, at least not initially (and it has the dopiest cover art of any great album of any time!).

It doesn’t even sound all that revolutionary. It certainly doesn’t sound like a rock album. Nobody’s kicking out any jams on this record. If you had to compare it to something, it might be a beautifully made pair of shoes that never wear out and feel more comfortable the more you wear them—and make you feel better just by having them on.

Or maybe the metaphor should be aural furniture: something that you live with day in and day out for years. It doesn’t change your world in any dramatic overnight sense, it just makes it more bearable—and more beautiful.

But when a creative work hangs on for 50 years, you do stop and ask, why? What gives it that staying power? And how does it not grow dated?

“Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” for example, sounds daisy fresh even today, but it also sounds like a product of its time. It seethes with a ’60s feel. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” on the other hand, seems somehow to float free in time. It evokes no time or place or mindset, except maybe eternal youth.

It does this, I think, by not calling attention to itself. All the musical bells and whistles that fans dote on are all there. The deep dives into its intricacies are all more than justified. Brian Wilson to the contrary notwithstanding (“I’m not a genius; I’m just a hard working guy”), it is a work of musical genius. You can dig and dig and never get to the bottom of it.

But it doesn’t make a fetish of its richness. The tympani, the bass harmonica, the theremin—they are all there for a reason. They belong in the songs, so much so that if you think about the instrumentation at all while you listen, you simply think, that’s the only combination of instruments and voices that would have worked there. It seems all so inevitable, as though this record simply appeared, fully formed, with no human intermediary. And certainly there’s no moment where you feel like the musicians are poking you in the ribs and saying, “Cellos—neat, right?”

I must have listened to Pet Sounds dozens, maybe hundreds of times, without thinking, here’s a classic, near perfect record. I knew it was wonderful, otherwise I wouldn’t have played it so much. And I knew that it possessed that oddly magical quality of seeming new every time it hit the turntable or the CD player or some streaming device.

Still, I had to read somewhere that it was a concept album before I knew that it was the musical story of the arc of a love affair—maybe it was “Sloop John B” that threw me off the track there? Or maybe it was my chronic inability to pay much attention to lyrics (if you put a gun to my head and told me to sing any song I loved from beginning to end, I’m not sure I could do it).

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So sue me. Maybe I take greatness for granted. I know I did when I was a teenager listening to this music for the first time: This was just stuff on the radio—great stuff, yes, what you hoped for in the song rotation, but no one ever thought of it in the same sentence with the word art. But I think greatness can also reveal itself in staying power, and that’s what Pet Sounds has done. Fifty years and counting, and there’s still not a stale note on it. I’d like to think that without ever reading a word about this almost magical album, that sooner or later, I’d recognize the accomplishment.

It doesn’t hurt—it may in fact be the crucial fact of the matter—that this album is the work of one man. Pop music, rock especially, is usually a collaborative enterprise. But in the case of this album—and even the other Beach Boys grudgingly concur—this was the work of Brian Wilson. Yes, he had help with the song lyrics, and he was completely open to the suggestions of the studio musicians who perform on the album. But at the end of the end, every major decision was ultimately his. He was 23.

Pet Sounds would prove to be the apotheosis of Brian’s achievement, along with “Good Vibrations,” and after that would come the crash and burn of Smile, the ill-fated project which until recently we have never heard in any kind of complete form, and which certainly had no impact when various little pieces of it were released in the ’60s.

Sometimes I daydream about him, making that amazing music all by himself out there in Southern California with no one he could talk to about what he was up to because almost no one around him had more than an inkling of how enormously talented he was. The studio musicians who play on Pet Sounds, they knew. But that was about it. The Beatles, the Stones—almost any of his contemporaries, really—had each other. Dylan, of course, was just Dylan, but speaking strictly musically, Dylan couldn’t hold Brian Wilson’s coat. No, Brian was all on his own.

He must have been lonely in that regard, but happy, too, because when he made Pet Sounds, he poured everything he knew into that one album, and boy did he know a lot. There is beauty stacked on beauty in those tracks, but every moment, every sound, serves the whole. It seduces you one subtle measure at a time, and then does it again, over and over, for as long as you care to listen. It’s been doing that for half a century, and I don’t see it ever stopping. Some people call the greatest album ever made. Who am I to argue? Brian himself has said that he was deliberately trying to tap into something spiritual with the music on that record, and while that word usually makes me cringe, in this I think he succeeded. Pet Sounds, without fail, will lift you up.