Whenever pundits, critics, and intelligentsia decide that some work of art or other is worthy of being designated “the absolute greatest painting/recording/novel/lint collection of all time,” there’s always someone with claws out, waiting to pounce on the pronouncement and rip the accolades to so many adjective-laden shreds. Oddly enough, in the case of Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s compositional masterwork Pet Sounds, it was the rest of his band who couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about. Sure, the other Boys (Mike Love, Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis, and Al Jardine) sang their parts (as written by Brian) beautifully, even if they were singing gobbledegook about “hanging onto your ego.” But these lush, symphonic, and baroque pieces were as far removed from the good-time surf ditties the band was known for as they could possibly be. For all the band knew, these tunes could’ve been beamed into Brian’s brain from another planet. And for all we know, they probably were.
Still, even with stiff resistance from his bandmates, his record label, and potentially even his fans, Brian soldiered on, pulling these pet sounds from his head and painstakingly putting them to tape. And we’re a much better world for it. Imagine a world without Carl Wilson’s sublime, gentle reading of “God Only Knows” (the first song to include the word “God” in the title, according to folklore). A world without the impossibly gorgeous vocal harmonies stacked sky-high in the closing of “You Still Believe in Me.” A world without the giddy, heart-bursting optimism of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” or the silly musical mischief of “Sloop John B.” I can’t imagine living in such a world, and thank God (and Brian Wilson) we don’t have to.
So while his band thought he was bonkers, and the American public didn’t quite get it right away, Pet Sounds did find an eager audience in the U.K., and in particular with those shaggy mustachioed mop-tops the Beatles, who proceeded to nick various aspects of the album for their own orch-pop opus Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. Wilson would hear that album and be tempted to recoil in defeat, and the Beach Boys’s days as summertime chart-toppers grew limited. But as time has crept on, the hosannas for Pet Sounds are still fervently sounded (hell, even Mike Love likes it now), you can buy several versions of the collection (including a lavish box set containing alternate versions, a cappella takes, and other goodies), and it’s widely regarded as perhaps the greatest pop album ever made. And still, somewhere on planet Earth, someone is experiencing the euphoria of these songs for the first time. To that person, I say welcome to a new and lovelier world.