June 29th, 2000

Pet Sounds

When Brian Wilson made Pet Sounds in 1966 it was in response to what he saw as the gauntlet thrown down by the Beatles with Rubber Soul. Avid Beach Boys fans, however, were perplexed by the album. Wilson, the wisdom goes, was too far ahead of the game – as his own song sighed, “I just wasn’t made for these times”. The critics agreed, retrospectively elevating Pet Sounds to its proper and permanent place in the rock pantheon.

Yet far from being a flawless landmark en route to the rock’n’roll future, Pet Sounds is a deeply reactionary record, a baroque lament for a pre-Beatles age of gormless innocence made by a chubby, mentally unstable, Daddy-dominated dysfunctional nerd. Pet Sounds is a record that reverberates with terror at the untamed world of adulthood that Sixties rock was on the point of ushering in, as symbolised in the horror of “Caroline No”. Small wonder that after this album, Wilson took to his bed, a non-participant in the gloriously wild remainder of the decade. Strange things happened to The Beach Boys and they did strange things but they were not wild – they were as cowed and tame in spirit as the farm animals featured on the somewhat trite cover to Pet Sounds. This is not a record that dreams rock’n’roll dreams of exciting new worlds but craves perpetually for a regressive, thumb-sucking bliss. “I Wasn’t Made For These Times” is Wilson wishing he’d been born in an earlier, not a later generation. “You Still Believe In Me” contains the longest whine in pop history – “I wanna cryyyyyyyyyyayyyyyyyyayayayyyyyyy . . .”. It’s the enfeebled tantrum of a man who knows the T-Bird of inane surf music has been towed away. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” yearns for a halcyon, endless, sexless, bobbysox state of romance – “I wish this kiss would last forever” and is couched in the ramalalama, doo-wop tones of an obsolete Fifties era. “Let’s Go Away For A While” is still more banal. Critics have read fathoms of infinite, aching longing into this instrumental but what again, it’s a song about retreat – about the impulsive urge to take a holiday when life gets too much, as it frequently did for the pitiful Wilson. The Reaper is fair-minded – “God Only Knows” is the album’s one great song, in spite of its banal, coconut-shell rhythms. Yet even here, the silent partner to whom it’s addressed must pause for thought at what kind of clingy, invertebrate character she’s saddled herself with. Wilson’s studio perfectionism has attracted a welter of anal/academic interest. But the vocal harmonies, the arrangements, the control freakery are the down to his desire to create a toy, harmonised world of his own to live in, a distraction from the chaos of the actual world. No wonder he hated playing live and eventually refused to do so – the spontaneity, the exciting and unexpected were all anathema to his timid soul. Hence his solace in orchestration. Critics are so rapt about Wilson’s painstaking efforts here that they lost sight of the end result. “I’m Waiting For The Day” sounds like a school band, recorders and all, invited onto Blue Peter to perform a selection of sea shanty arrangements, while the instrumental title track is pure Test Card music. Pet Sounds chimes thus throughout, with resonances of an attic full of nostalgic, childish things. It’s much-vaunted “melancholia” is merely a craving for a retarded state of halcyon bliss. It is in short, a weak album made by a weak man that appeals to the all of our weakest yearnings, to hide under a warm duvet and wish the world would go away. Wake up, folks. Pet Sounds is pathetic.

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