The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds”

The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds album cover

I spent the past week with The Beach Boys’ 1966 album “Pet Sounds”. I first listened to it about 20 years ago and fell in love instantly. Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys accomplished things singularly special with this album. It’s difficult to listen to the Beach Boys music critically or analytically, because it so easy to enjoy. Whereas The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” had simple elements put together in complex ways, “Pet Sounds” has layers of complexity that suggest simplicity. Tremendous and inventive songwriting runs throughout the whole album. A closer listen rewards, even though it may be humbling. The songs highlight the singer’s great abilities. The use of voices on this album is something I can only admire from afar. What else can I, as a songwriter, learn from this album?

It’s worth trying instruments in unusual ways. Throughout “Pet Sounds” there are great examples of instruments performing a different function than usual. In my favorite song, “I’m Waiting for the Day”, the organ often provides the rhythmic beat when there’s no percussion. There’s actually large portions of this album with little to no percussion, especially of the typical drum kit variety. In the song “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, temple blocks provide a more melodic accompaniment than rhythmic; the plucky bass guitar fulfills that role.

I often either use bass to provide either a driving foundation for a song or to provide a a melodic counterpoint; the bass on several songs on “Pet Sounds” also provides rhythm in the absence of a kick drum. This is something I could easily put to try out. I’m taking the long sections with minimal percussion as a challenge to get away from constant pop percussion.

“Pet Sounds” reminds me of the importance of a good opening. The first 9 seconds of the album are joyfully engaging. A 12-string guitar plays a dreamy music-box like arpeggio, a single drum hit grabs out attention, and then immediately there are vocals with a jaunty accompaniment. Two accordions are played so much like rhythm guitar that I actually thought that’s what they were. The song progresses through several different sections, musically quite different from each other, that work perfect together. Mindboggling; A lesson in how different each section of a song can be, if there’s a sense of natural progression.

There’s so much I could say about this album, but I’ll stop myself here. It defies any attempt I can make at pointing out stand-out tracks, because they’re nearly all incredible. It’s true that I frequently skip the slower hymn “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”. I could point out that my favorites are “I’m Waiting for the Day”, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”, and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, but that’s not fair to equally brilliant songs like “Caroline, No” and “God Only Knows”. I believe that this may be the greatest album of all time.