Pet Sounds - 1966Pet Sounds (1966) is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time. To be honest, I came to it relatively recently. When I was younger I just didn’t get it – I think my knowledge of the Beach Boys’ music was based around a greatest hits tape I had, and the fact that all those fun songs about surfing and stuff weren’t on it alienated me. I’ve since come to my senses, and realised that it’s actually the most beautiful album ever recorded.The story is pretty well known. The Beach Boys were the Wilson brothers (Brian, Dennis and Carl), their cousin Mike Love and another guy (Al Jardine). They made their name doing light and fluffy songs about chicks, surfing and cars, but stood out from the crowd due to the technical complexity of their music, with their ambitious vocal arrangements elevating it above its subject matter. (Pop doesn’t need good lyrics – it’s about the way it sounds. Frank Sinatra’s songs may seem hopelessly old-fashioned and even na´ve nowadays, but listening to his music is still an infinitely more rewarding experience than listening to Coldplay.) The increasingly unstable Brian Wilson, the group’s main song-writer, retired from touring with the band, and while they were all away performing, he wrote Pet Sounds (or most of it). Shortly afterwards, his escalating drug use and other psychological problems basically turned him into a recluse, no longer capable of writing or performing. He vanished for almost 40 years. It’s impossible to listen to Pet Sounds without bearing in mind Wilson’s imminent collapse. The wistful yearning in many of the songs seems like a genuine cry for help. He sings lead vocal on most of the songs, and his voice is absolutely perfect. But the sheer technical brilliance of his voice doesn’t rob the songs of any of their impact – there’s a fragility in there, as if the very perfection of the performance itself somehow contains the seeds of its own destruction. The only comparable album I can think of is Blood On The Tracks by Bob Dylan, another very personal album, but there, while Dylan’s hard-edged, slightly out-of-tune voice reverberates with bitterness and grief, it somehow sounds a lot healthier. Here the opposite is true – the more angelic Wilson’s voice seems, the closer to the edge he seems to get.And most of the songs yearn for a better world to live in, or better times, or at least a respite from this crazy modern world – but on a purely personal level. There’s no particular desire for world peace or anything, just for a personal utopia for Brian Wilson. ‘I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be.’ And so forth.I’m no good at talking about music, really, but one thing that seems to make the tunes here so great is that they’re unpredictable and complex. Some great pop melodies unfold exactly the way you expect them to (no bad thing, necessarily). Songs like Yesterday or Strangers In The Night, for instance – when you first hear them it feels like you’ve known them all your life. The melodies here don’t have that simplicity – they’re none the worse for it, and don’t at any point sound like they’re getting too clever for their own good. But for me (at the moment, anyway) it certainly elevates Pet Sounds above anything Paul McCartney ever did with the Beatles.Wouldn’t It Be Nice is pretty famous. It’s one of the most upbeat songs on the album, although the lyrics have an ambiguity to them that goes against the cheerful tune and backing vocals. You Still Believe In Me slows things down, having the feel almost of baroque church music – almost a hymn to the woman who sticks by him in spite of all his problems. The great escalating chorus that ends the song could almost be played in the tackiest small-town American chapel. Which at least suggests that Brian Wilson still had a sense of humour.That’s Not Me is a song about finding one’s true identity in this crazy modern world through the love of a good woman. Much like the previous two songs, in fact. One begins to get some hints about what was on Wilson’s mind when he was working on the album. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) is a rather lovely slow number in which a perfect romantic situation with a perfect girl is seen as a way to escape the real world (again). I’m Waiting For The Day is a bit more cheerful, a guy telling his girlfriend (or maybe prospective girlfriend) that he’ll wait for her to get over her old boyfriend. It’s a bit more dynamic than the other songs, and Wilson’s vocals are actually quite rugged in places. Next up is a weak instrumental track, Let’s Go Away For A While, which sounds like it should be incidental music for a reflective moment in a rubbish police drama. (Still, check out the title – he could have called it ‘The Happy Windmill’ or something, but no, once again we get the desire to get away from it all…)Sloop John B, a rather jaunty sea-shanty type song (the only cover version on the album), is a bit of a sore thumb. Technically perfect, it just doesn’t really fit in with the rest. It’s fun and all, but it’s as if Brief Encounter had had a rollicking bar-room brawl in the middle. God Only Knows is certainly the best-known song on the album, and also probably the best. Like You Still Believe In Me, it’s a song of near worship to an ideal woman (sung by Carl Wilson rather than Brian, but done very well, somehow avoiding being too syrupy). I wonder if this woman really existed. She’d have had a lot to live up to…I Know There’s An Answer is about the problems of relating to other people in this… um… crazy modern world. It’s a bit less reflective than some of the other songs, at least in the way it sounds, with some of the other Beach Boys getting to share the lead vocals with Brian, and a banjo and saxophone combining to make it a bit less otherworldly than usual. Here Today is one of the best melodies on the album, at times almost reminiscent of the Beatles (at least until the backing vocals kick in). It’s also slightly funnier, rueful about a lost love rather than insanely needy and desperately sad. I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times is about… well… you can guess. Crazy modern world = bad, idealised cloud cuckoo land = good. But a lovely song nevertheless, with some really nice, ethereal backing vocals that would have had Joe Meek spitting with jealousy. Pet Sounds is another instrumental, a lot more lounge-y than anything else on the album. The kind of music that should play in a bar on beach somewhere exotic, where everything’s lined with bamboo and they serve ludicrous cocktails in coconuts.Caroline, No is the last song, and one of the best. Truly perfect. A lament for a relationship gone sour. Maybe it’s the girl from all the previous songs, finally fed up with him. In those terms it makes for a rather depressing end to the album. Luckily, the copy of the album I’ve got has a bonus track on the end (Hang On To Your Ego, a slightly different version of I Know There’s An Answer), and then plays the whole album again! (One version is mono, and one stereo – this means that I generally end up listening to it twice).So OK, after a while (especially if you think about it too much, as I have evidently been doing) the single-mindedness of the lyrics may seem slightly ridiculous. But that doesn’t change the fact that this album is absolutely wonderful (apart from the instrumental tracks). As I said, lyrics don’t matter so much. And heck, who doesn’t have days like that? Days when you’d like to forget all about money and public transport and Iraq and just run off to some desert island with a nice lady with soulful eyes and live a life unfettered by all the everyday nonsense? When it catches me in the right mood this album makes me feel absurdly wistful. Even when it doesn’t, I still love it. It’s genuinely life-enhancing, and there aren’t many things I’d say that about.