The Beach Boys album Pet Sounds has been a milestone twice over. When it was released, 50 years ago today, it was rock & roll’s coming of age: a sui generis album of healing songs about painful emotions, informed by jazz, hymns, Spectorian pop, classical music and exotica. In 2001, after the long period in exile documented in recent biopic Love and Mercy, Wilson began performing the whole thing to rapturous receptions, helping establish the practice, now ubiquitous, of playing classic albums in full. This tour will be the album’s final outing — and perhaps Wilson’s, too — but it’s a long goodbye. It’s somewhat ironic that an album that Wilson was only able to create because he quit touring will keep the 73-year-old on the road until deep into the fall.
Pet Sounds is sometimes regarded as a Wilson solo album, mostly recorded with crack L.A. session musicians and lyricist Tony Asher while his bandmates were out of the way, but he needs a mess of help to stand alone. His current 11-strong band includes original Beach Boy Al Jardine, his son Matt, early Seventies member Blondie Chaplin, and cheerful veterans of the 2001 shows. Carl and Dennis Wilson are long gone, and there is no need for Mike Love, who famously loathed Pet Sounds for breaking from the winning sunshine-and-cars formula.
After years of touring, Wilson looks less shell-shocked than he did during the 2001 shows but he is nobody’s idea of a natural performer. Sitting at a black baby grand, he never smiles and introduces songs like he’s barking safety instructions through a P.A. system. Although he takes many lead vocals, his band is acutely sensitive to his fallibility. When he drops a line, one of the Jardines steps in to keep the song airborne.
The first half of the two-hour show gallops through Beach Boys highlights before and after Pet Sounds, framing the album as a small island of fragility. The likes of “California Girls” and “I Get Around” made Wilson the laureate of American adolescent exuberance but “In My Room”‘s reclusive doo-wop says more about Wilson’s own state of mind than all the hits put together. Only “Heroes and Villains” represents Smile, the vaulting art-pop extravaganza, not finished until 2004, that broke Wilson’s control over the band and forced him into a defensive crouch.
Chaplin brings a dissonant jolt of alpha-male energy to the show during three beefed-up songs from 1967’s Wild Honey and 1973’s Holland. The South African guitarist played with the Rolling Stones for over a decade and swaggers like he never left. When he roams the stage, soloing in his bandmates’ faces, Wilson places an awkward hand on his shoulder like someone trying to placate a hostage-taker. This is robust, extroverted rock music deployed as a prelude to an album that is none of those things.
After the interlude, the Pet Sounds section opens with a recording of studio chatter from 1966, a neat reminder of how much labour it took to get the album right. Pet Sounds‘ power lies in the contrast between the music’s prodigious maturity and the lyrics’ fear of adulthood. Unable to navigate the world, Wilson constructed his own little empire in the studio, a more sociable version of the refuge he described in “In My Room”: “a world where I can go and tell my secrets to.” Many of the songs speak of anxiety, guilt, loneliness and alienation and even its purest love song, “God Only Knows,” dwells on the prospect of love being taken away. It’s not just the choral harmonies that give Pet Sounds a religious quality. The whole album reveals a frightened young man hoping to be transformed and redeemed by music. During “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” Al Jardine sings “I guess he just wasn’t made for these times,” and points to Wilson, suggesting that the diagnosis is no less true today.
In Love and Mercy one of the musicians at the Pet Sounds sessions assures the nervous Wilson that he’s a genius, mastering things that nobody else is even attempting. Try to diagram the arrangements on these songs and that claim holds true. Any bar band can make a decent fist of “Barbara Ann” but none would try their luck with the elaborate chamber-pop of “Here Today.” Band members grab new instruments — French horn, xylophone, theremin, myriad forms of percussion — for just a few bars on a single song, then never touch them again. The singing is exquisite, with Matt Jardine standing in for the angelic Carl Wilson, but the instrumental “Let’s Go Away For a While,” expanded into lush, symphonic jazz, drives home the fact that you could remove all the voices from Pet Sounds and it would still be extraordinary. Its delicate magic requires careful handling though. When Chaplin reappears during the title track to play tambourine with Jaggerish flamboyance he could not look more out if place if he were to strip naked. It takes the divine sadness of “Caroline No” to restore the spell.
The audience responds to the album with reverential hush, broken only by a standing ovation for “God Only Knows,” before the encore, starting with “Good Vibrations,” brings fans out of their seats to dance in their aisles. The contrast is striking. The encore, like the first half, is raucously enjoyable rock & roll, but after half a century Pet Sounds is still something else entirely.