Beach Boys weren’t just about the fun fun fun

Nobody cares if you can sing. Lessons or no lessons, this is the bottom line — whether you sound as weathered as Tom Waits or as pristine as Whitney Houston, the fact remains that you are, in fact, neither of them. And we know who you are, because you insist on broadcasting your ultimately boring vocal histrionics everywhere. You sing going up the stairs, you sing coming down the stairs, you sing walking down the street, you sing showering, and you even sing inside your own head where you think nobody can hear. I can, and I know I can because every time I pass you my face contorts involuntarily into an expression of revulsion for the looney tunes blasting through your skull.

I probably could not suppress my disgust for this display from many famous people whose voices I actually do admire for its aesthetic beauty. Aretha would get a kick to the teeth, Bowie a slap in the face, and most likely Bjork would just be locked in the closet, although she might actually enjoy that. On the probationary list of the spared, Brian Wilson would be at the top. His voice differs in an astonishing way. Most of my favorite singers have distinctive voices, unmistakable from any other due to its rasp, squeal, vigor, or any such idiosyncrasy. Wilson’s voice, however, overwhelms you with its sheer, Ella Fitzgerald brand of bell-like perfection. His flawless performances reveal his versatility in many of the Beach Boys’ old recordings. There are multiple instances in which he morphs from blue whale to bottlenose dolphin within the same song, to use predictable marine metaphors.

For years I resisted The Beach Boys and pinned them as a terribly out-of-touch nostalgia act with archaic songs about girls in polka dots. You could hardly blame me — they were on “Full House,” for God’s sake, and whenever I hear “Kokomo,” my left eye twitches uncontrollably. None of the old surfing songs impressed me, mostly because I found, as I still do, surfing to be quite lame. I bet it’s fun, but anything that both Sheryl Crow and Jimmy Buffett enjoy recreationally bores me endlessly. I need something of substance to hold my attention, something besides fun fun fun in the sun sun sun. As I’ve mentioned many times before, I hate the sun, and for years I hated The Beach Boys.

Then I bought Pet Sounds. So much has already been written about the album’s magnificent music, but the inspiration and ambition still confound me. This album makes the entirety of Sergeant Pepper’s sound like “Hot Cross Buns.” Layers of emotion lie on top of layers of harmony, and the melodies refuse to be enveloped, staggering to the top of the heap and illuminating the brilliance of each composition.

Nearly every song is perfect. “God Only Knows” bewilders me so much that I can only scratch my head at its apt title. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” though familiar, is consistently rewarding. There are 13 more tracks, and each one is equally inspired. The unconventional instrumentation, Wilson’s actual “pet” sounds, align impeccably, though implausibly, with the bluntly tender lyrics penned by Tony Asher with Brian Wilson. One can easily understand how a mind capable of creating such a bizarre musical extravaganza could just as easily generate terrifying auditory hallucinations. For decades, Wilson fell off the deep end, drowning in a sea populated not with cheerful voices but with demonic incantations like “I’ll kill you,” “You’re going to die,” and the like.

After searching for decades, it appears Brian Wilson has found his marbles. Well, almost. He’s got at least half a bag again. As a result, he was able to summon his abilities and resurrect the follow-up to Pet Sounds, the mythical Smile. Wilson had finished some of the tracks over thirty years ago, and several of them resurfaced on other Beach Boys albums, but this time he chose to rerecord all of the tracks with his massive touring band.

The result is an impressive product, but I miss the harmonies of the original line-up. Wilson’s voice has held up surprisingly well, even though his delivery seems stilted and anesthetized at times. “Heroes and Villains” remains invested with true magic, worthy of its lofty, imposing title. The instrumental “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow,” on the other hand, is absolutely hair-raising, perhaps the closest approximation of Wilson’s internal nightmares.

“Good Vibrations” is also included here. I always wished it had closed Pet Sounds, since the lyrics were composed with Tony Asher rather than Smile’s dominant lyricist, Van Dyke Parks. It’s perhaps The Beach Boys best song, and deserves to be on their best album. Smile suffers from decades of tense anticipation, waiting to be finished, and the result is a complacent grin. Meanwhile, Pet Sounds stands defiant, arms crossed, waiting for you to play it.

Comments