Speaking of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is somewhat cliché when it comes to rock criticism. Its awesome harmonic sonorities in terms of the then latest of pop/rock music of the day, as well as the studio technique on the multi-track recorder, is indeed unparalleled. Pet Sounds is what Pink Floyd fans would refer to as “head phone” music. It is a musical feast. Moreover, we all know that Pet Sounds had a great influence on the Beatles’ Sgt. Peppers, so we have no need to belabor this point regarding the endless praise given to this album. It must be said that, despite its immense listenability, Pet Sounds does not suffer from Dylan’s statement from authority in the “Ballad of the Thin Man” that you (being Mr. Jones) must wear ear-phones. One need not be as closed off as Dylan would have it in order to be open to a musical experience beyond cynicism, even if it means highly produced pop and rock music like Pet Sounds.
One can sincerely dig rock and roll music. Peter, Paul and Mary pointed out that if they really said it, then the radio wouldn’t play it, unless they laid it between the lines. Let me suggest that despite the beautiful music and earnest lyrics, Pet Sounds has much that is between the lines.
Like I said, speaking of Pet Sounds is the cliché of current rock criticism. God bless Carl Eric Scott for not wishing to enter into this minefield (but then perhaps Carl has bigger fish to fry). I kid, because Carl has explored the depths of rock more than anyone I have ever read. So let me offer a few thoughts apposite, if more personal, to what Carl would have written of Pet Sounds if he had so chosen to pick this musical obsession.
One of the great things of the Pet Sounds album has to do with its song lyrics. After a few general remarks, I will return shortly to the lyrics, but it must be said that as a whole, these songs musically capture a feeling of longing and loneliness for which I suspect there is not as direct a comparison in most rock music. Sgt. Peppers, to which Pet Sounds is often compared, is too impersonal with its knowledge of holes that allegedly fill the Albert Hall when you’re sixty-four. The Cocteau Twins, to make a later reference, make beautiful compositions pointing toward transcendence, but their lyrics are indecipherable. By contrast, the Beach Boys have simple lyrics and transcendent compositions without Beatleseque imagist obscurantism.
Listening to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album again (for the umpteenth time) makes me appreciate the great musical arrangements, but for once and for all (as I had definitely thought in the past) the issue of loneliness truly was evident on this album. It wasn’t simply a question of not being made for these times. To my ears the entire album expressed a kind of loneliness, even if sentimental. But more than this sentimentality there is on this album an intimation of a kind of ineradicable loneliness that resembles a kind of malignancy. It is a beautiful and lonely kind of music which is troubling in its naive honesty. One wonders why Pet Sounds was made in the first place. Perhaps it was made despite the banalities of typical loneliness (in terms of pop music), but which also simultaneously intended to provide a bracing sentiment for dealing with a world far from sentimentality. Sometimes I feel very sad when Brian Wilson sings.
There is good reason why this collection of Beach Boys songs captures the imagination. The songs are excellent even if they are morose.
Is Pet Sounds a precursor to “emo” music of today? If the album were nothing but “In My Room” (not on Pet Sounds) one might think such is the case. Rather than emo, each song relentlessly takes the listener to his vulnerable loneliness. Perhaps this is a kind of emo, but it does not exhibit entitlement. It simply accepts loneliness as it is, and if it whines, it whines in solitude. Solitude is the key of Pet Sounds, as when by yourself you talk to your cat or dog—or yourself. Okay, I admit that I talk to my cat, but don’t worry for my sanity because he doesn’t talk back to me. That said, my domestic animal is good listener! To give a bit in favor of madness, usually these monologues to the cat happen when I am washing dishes or folding laundry, and they deal with various topics—for example the distinction between vainglory and the fear of violent death in Hobbes. Yes, I truly wonder what my cat does when I fall asleep. I kid.
Regarding vulnerable loneliness, the one song on Pet Sounds not written (but arranged) by the Wilson brothers , i.e., “The Sloop John B,” speaks of a boy stuck by himself Robert Louis Stevenson style on a ship for which he can only wish to go home. Surely the men on the ship will not indulge such sentimental weakness. I wanna go home, but he can’t.
Then there is the nice confessional song “That’s Not Me”—which has a very interesting rhythm (what is the time signature? 7/5?).
I had to prove that I could make it alone
But that’s not me
I wanted to show how independent I’d grown now
But that’s not me
Amazing that a writer of a song, a songwriter of great talent and ambition, still seeks recognition but is not willing to call it me. Me is known to be other than that which has left home in its own independence. The folks back home—and especially the girl—when he writes them, don’t get his ambition to get he hell out of the place they call home. Nonetheless, he found out that his lonely life outside of his home wasn’t so pretty, but then the song keeps the refrain in a repetitive manner which leads one to doubt the sentiment that home is where the heart is.
I once had a dream
So I packed up and split for the city
I soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty
I’m glad I went now I’m that much more sure that we’re ready
The song’s refrain ends with the exciting life of proving that one could make it alone. In its “once,” the song says that this is surely impossible in this case, and it is interesting that “the city” is the place where one’s own self sufficiency becomes doubtful.
Allegedly he returns home glad to meet his girl who is now ready. Why wasn’t she ready before? What if he had found some degree of satisfaction outside of the return? What if the city provided what he needed outside what was not him? What if “That’s Not Me” became the basis of who he was?
This is only a riff on one song. “I Know There’s an Answer”—or its Bowiesque outtake “Hang Onto Your Ego”—surely would have more to say regarding this issue of ambition in relation to home.
The loneliness of these songs, like a Culture of Narcissism or Souls Without Longing, haven’t been surpassed despite emo, neo-Pink Floyd, psychedelic, XTC, paisley pop.
So emo rightly understood is okay, but it is always a little self-indulgent.