Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Isolation

Pet Sounds
The Beach Boys, 1966

[I'm getting serious about doing some more music writing, so hopefully there will be some regular posting here in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!]

Let me start by saying that this is one of those big important landmark pop albums that I just never listened to. I should make a list of those one day, actually. I picked up a copy last week, and I've listened to it intently ten or twelve times now. Normally, I haven't written here about records that I don't have some history with, but I'm going to break that rule now, because I have something important to say about this album that I haven't seen written anywhere else:

Pet Sounds is a sad, sad, sad, sad record. Maybe the most melancholy I've ever heard.

It's quite excellent, don't get me wrong, but not for the reasons I usually like popular music. There is no groove here - it's not funky, doesn't swing, doesn't rock, has no grit or grease whatsoever (OK, the cover of "Sloop John B" doesn't completely obliterate its calypso roots, and "Here Today" has a rocking feel to it, but that's about it). It's solidly in the midcentury definition of popular song recordings. We tend to skew the 1960s towards rock, soul, and folk music in our generational imaginations, but looking at the top 40 charts for the year Pet Sounds was released, I see hits by Petula Clark, Herb Alpert, the Ray Conniff Singers, Frank Sinatra, etc. That's the tradition that this album belongs to, really.

But it goes beyond that, because there's no strong personality behind the microphone either. The singing is only fleetingly self-expressive, instead opting for a clean (if adolescent) vocal style. No singer puts a real signature on any performance. I think we can consider this a recording of compositions by Brian Wilson, much like a recording of compositions by, say, Heinrich Sch├╝tz. We're supposed to hear the composer more than the performer here.

Much has been written about all the studio trickery and experimentation that went into recording this album, and rightly so. Here's an essentially self-taught kid from Hawthorne, California, with a big sonic palette in his head, achieving really amazing results by knob-twiddling in the studio. He's obviously got a pretty masterful ear, which is why I am certain that the overall sadness of this album was a desired goal.

You see, the real sadness comes from the way the vocal tracks are isolated. In every single song, the lead singer sounds like he is alone in an empty room, unable to truly connect with the rest of the music. It's as if the vocalist is in a constant state of lonely yearning, reaching in vain for meaningful contact with the rest of the world. This can't be accidental - the vocal parts are in a very different sound-space from the accompaniment (with a big wet reverb, among other things), and somehow the fact that it's in mono instead of stereo only emphasizes this more.

It's fitting, since so many of the lyrics are about longing and wishing, or other kinds of subjunctive mood (see "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "God Only Knows," "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times," etc.). When listening, I thought that my maudlin response to "Wouldn't It Be Nice" was preconditioned by how it was used in the film Roger and Me, but upon further listening, it's all right there in the music and the production. I mean, it's actually got a bridge with a slower tempo, plus all that flipping back and forth between chest voice and ethereal falsetto, as if trying to bridge some gap between the current state and the desired one. Performed and recorded differently, this might have been a happy-go-lucky chugging little ditty, but what's on record is at the very least bittersweet and at the most darkly pessimistic.

Getting back to my point about listening to the composer: the melody of the chorus for "God Only Knows" has a very satisfying shape, spun out into some effective counterpoint, and nice modally-inflected harmonic motion, contrasting the more chromatic and dramatic structure of the harmony in the verses. The most fascinating song for me, though, is "Don't Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)," which falls into the very small category of songs I can't believe anyone ever thought could be on a popular record in a million years. It doesn't do any of the things that commercially-successful songs are supposed to do, yet it's absolutely compelling, like a message from another world, or music heard in a dream.

This is an album to listen to with a glass of wine (and all sharp objects removed from the room) on a lonely Saturday night. Beautiful, thought-provoking, strange, and very very sad.

Get it on itunes: The Beach Boys - Pet Sounds

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