The Rewind Button is a group blogging project instigated by Rachel Tynan. As part of her New Years’ Resolutions for 2012, she set out to listen to Rolling Stone’s top 50 albums of all time. My sister, Reb Stevenson, thought it would be fun if a group of bloggers listened to the same albums at the same time, then posted their reactions.
This week is Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys (1966)
Everybody can remember a few records from their childhood they put a loving scratch in. Those dirty, uncoordinated mini fingers trying to put the needle back in place over and over again.
One such record for mini me was the 45 of “Surfin’ USA”. I surely aided that poor vinyl’s aging process. I loved that song. I couldn’t articulate why. It was natural. It wasn’t because my friends or MTV told me it was cool. I just liked it.
Being a big fan of music from the 50s and 60s, I am, of course, aware of the influence of the Beach Boys. My band, the Human Statues, even recently incorporated “Don’t Worry Baby” into our set. But I’ve never really sat down and gave my proper attention to “Pet Sounds” widely heralded as one of the most influential pop albums of the 60s.
When I think of the Beach Boys, I generally think of layers and layers of vocal harmonies and a single layer of lyrical depth. Which, in the case of Pet Sounds, isn’t entirely accurate. Though the poetry might not be the subject of an English lit class, the way the lyrics contrast and compliment the melodies is where a certain amount of Brian Wilson’s genius lies. I’m partial to those deceptively happy songs that disguise bitterness and hurt. I always think of the Everly Brothers’ “Bye, Bye Love” as a good example:
“Bye bye love, bye bye happiness
Hello loneliness, I think i’m gonna cry
Bye bye love, Bye bye sweet caress
Hello emptiness, I feel like i could die
Goodbye, my love, Goodbye”
All to a rhythm and melody so peppy, the whole family sings along.
Pet Sounds has plenty of examples of this. Think of the boundlessly optimistic sounding “Wouldn’t it be Nice” evocative of a road trip along route 66 in the summer or ’59 with the top down. It makes me feel happy to hear it. And yet, the song is actually about being UNhappy. The singer is revealing all that he doesn’t have in his life that could make him happy. The bridge gets a little more direct.
“You know it seems the more we talk about it
It only makes it worse to live without it
But let’s talk about it”
Yes, Pet Sounds does indeed talk about it. It really is the voice of the young men who were teens 1950s America with such promise for the future. While the influence and sound of that California/American dream is ever present, the lyrics reveal the hard realities and upheaval of the 1960s. Identity crisis, longing, and loss are the most prevalent themes lyrically coming from a man feeling like he “just wasn’t made for these times”. Underscored with uplifting arrangements like a veneer- an America trying to save face. It’s a young man trying to enjoy a hot dog, staring out over Santa Monica’s shimmering ocean, attempting not to think of his peers further beyond in the rain and mud of a Vietnamese jungle.
There really is a sense of changing times in Pet Sounds. It seems like we’re often wondering and waiting for something. “Wouldn’t it be Nice”, “I’m Waiting for the Day”, “I Know There’s an Answer” but “God Only Knows”.
It sounds like we’re waiting for the future to get better. A future more like the past.
When I hear the opening riff of the album, I think of an ice cream truck rolling down a sunny street. I wish I could hop aboard to take a lift into the past too. And, in a way, I do. I get to “go away for a while” to a time that sometimes I think I was made for
For more on Pet Sounds and other treats: