The case has often been argued that the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” is the greatest rock album of all time, and on the 50th anniversary of its release, Brian Wilson, the recording’s mastermind, is playing the album in its entirety on tour, allegedly for the last time ever. (The tour stops at Boston’s Symphony Hall June 17 and 18, where the Boston Pops Orchestra will provide accompaniment, before heading to Tanglewood in Lenox on June 19.)
While I shy away from making any all-time-greatest claims — I would lean toward Bob Dylan’s “Blonde on Blonde,” which came out on the same day, or the Beatles’ “Revolver,” which followed just a couple of months later — there’s no doubt that “Pet Sounds” was a monumental achievement in its own right and on its own terms. At the very least, it deserves the honor of being called the saddest album of all time.
To these ears, “Pet Sounds” is nothing less than the portrayal of a nervous breakdown translated into a song cycle and wrought on a nearly symphonic scale. Taken in its totality, Wilson, the ostensible leader or at least creative fountainhead of the Beach Boys up until that time, ditched the surfing, cars and girls that had been the primary focus of his band, morphing signature elements of its sound — so it was still recognizably the Beach Boys — with the subtle (and not-so-subtle) twist of classical, jazz, experimental and avant-garde touches and accents, fused with a sonic landscape based on Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound,” all in the service of translating Wilson’s deepest fears, anxieties and insecurities into some of the most glorious pop songs ever recorded. In sum, the soundtrack to a crackup.
And what a glorious soundtrack it is, both musically and lyrically, in which everything works as layer upon layer of irony. From the album’s opening line of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” to the closing number, “Caroline No,” Wilson upends and overturns every Beach Boys cliché, exposing the hollowness at their core.
Whereas up until this point the group had celebrated the endless summer of adolescence as the bards of fun and teenage romance, Wilson starts right out with a 180-degree turn — “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older.” What? Really? It’s almost like a joke. “We could be married, and then we’d be happy.” Knowing what we now know about Wilson’s dysfunctional upbringing with an abusive father and alcoholic mother, the line comes across dripping with sarcasm.
And it’s all downhill from there, Wilson portraying a tortured life — his life, given what we’ve learned over the years of Wilson's struggles with mental illness and his very tenuous grasp on reality — and a tortured soul. An artist unable to find contentment among friends or stability within a love relationship, cursed by an omnipresent feeling of failure and alienation from his fellow human beings, and unable to feel joy in his accomplishments, forever nostalgic and longing for the (perhaps false) comforts of home.
The second song, “You Still Believe in Me,” sounds like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” inverted. All the basic Beach Boys elements are still there, but the beautiful melody and harmonies are dirge-like, befitting the opening line: “I know perfectly well I’m not where I should be.” Forget about any dreams of growing older, getting married and being happy. We’re now in the hands of a clinical depressive — “I try hard to be strong but sometimes I fail myself.” And if that doesn’t convince a listener, the song — originally called “In My Childhood” — ends with a swelling chorus of “I want to cry,” and then just the single word “cry,” repeated ad nauseam. And in case the listener doesn’t connect with it lyrically, he deftly makes the case sonically, replacing the quaint sound of a youthful bicycle bell with an ugly-sounding bicycle horn honking its way through the crying din.
The apocryphal story of the album’s one cover tune, “Sloop John B,” has it that it was foisted onto “Pet Sounds” by executives at Capitol Records who wanted the album to contain a guaranteed hit song (it was released before the album itself). But in Wilson’s transformation of this Bahamian folk song made famous by the Kingston Trio and brought to him by bandmate Al Jardine, “Sloop John B” serves as well as any as the album’s theme song. An unhappy sailor finds himself on a disastrous boat trip — “I feel so broke up, I want to go home.”
Substitute singer for sailor and an airplane for a ship, and it’s Wilson singing about the notorious anxiety attack on a plane which spelled the end of his participation in the touring life of the Beach Boys. He went home and basically never left, other than for the comfort of the recording studio where, like his idol Phil Spector, he could let his madness take rein in the service of his art with the collaboration of a group of musicians — Spector’s so-called Wrecking Crew — who were well versed in dealing with a monomaniac artist-arranger-producer-visionary.
The songs pile up in this vein. Would you ever think of beginning a love letter with the line, “I may not always love you”? Wilson did in “God Only Knows,” the most narcissistic love song ever written. “I Know There’s an Answer,” originally titled, “Hang onto Your Ego,” adopts therapeutic psychobabble on its way to concluding that the narrator needs to “isolate [his] head” in order to find the answer of the song title. And penultimately, Wilson, the number one teen genius of America, confesses to “looking for a place to fit in." Never finding it, he sings repeatedly, “Sometimes I feel very sad,” before concluding, “I guess I just wasn’t made for these times.” Times that, arguably, he played a strong role in creating himself.