12. “Let’s Go Away for Awhile”

The lone criticism of Pet Sounds that anyone seems to levy nowadays is that it’s dated. Its innovations, some argue, are tied inextricably to their time and have since been outdone by the songwriters and studio wizards who have followed Brian Wilson. That’s up for debate, but to these ears, Pet Sounds sounds as fresh as it did 50 years ago…except for “Let’s Go Away for Awhile.” Wilson was presenting a softer side of his songwriting on the album, but this instrumental is closer to Muzak than he would probably care to go. It certainly evokes the pleasant wistfulness of its title, and had he (or Bacharach & David, who wrote dozens of songs similar to this one) attached a set of lyrics to this, it would have a lasting impact. As it is, “Let’s Go Away for a While” is too slight to pay attention to for longer than its running time.

11. “I’m Waiting for the Day”

On an album full of love songs, “I’m Waiting for the Day” features some of Brian Wilson’s most simplistic lyrics (and let’s not forget to credit Mike Love for a small adjustment). In the song, Wilson’s narrator is that friend who is there to comfort a girl with a broken heart but is secretly waiting in the wings until she becomes available again. One of the more dynamic songs on Pet Sounds, “I’m Waiting for the Day” can border on bombast for some with its doo-wop harmonies and a soft-loud-soft dynamic.

Even Wilson wasn’t a huge fan of the song. “That’s the one cut off the album I didn’t really like that much,” he has claimed. But it wasn’t the song or its message with which he takes exception. “It was an appropriate song, a very, very positive song. I just didn’t like my voice on that particular song.”

10. “Sloop John B”

Out of context, the Beach Boys’ rendition of this folk tune is brilliant. The guitars chime and ring with clarity, and the harmonies (especially for those brief seconds when the music drops out at the bridge) are glorious. As a part of Pet Sounds, though, “Sloop John B” only sort of works. Lyrically, the tale of a seaman’s argument with his father doesn’t mesh with the rest of the themes on Pet Sounds, which are largely introspective. However, the mood of longing that pervades the rest of the album remains here, and it’s musically far closer to Pet Sounds than it is to the surf-rock of the band’s past. Aside from all of that, though, it’s a great listen, and its position as a staple of oldies radio is very much earned. Besides, what would you rather listen to, “Kokomo” or Sloop John B”?

9. “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)”

“Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” is one of Pet Sounds’ few mid-tempo songs but it doesn’t measure up to the majestic “You Still Believe in Me.” Another love song, “Don’t Talk” is also quite sad, an almost desperate take to keep a romance from falling apart. “We could live forever tonight/ Let’s not think about tomorrow/ And don’t talk put your head on my shoulder,” Wilson begs his lover in one refrain.

Featuring Wilson’s tenor without the accompaniment of the other Beach Boys, the song’s detractors can find it somewhat cloying and certainly less buoyant than the more successful tracks on the record. However, Wilson himself considers “Don’t Talk” to be “one of the sweetest songs” he ever sang. In trying to capture the sound of innocence and youth, Wilson looked to make his voice sound “young and childlike.” The song does have some famous fans. Elvis Costello once heard “Don’t Talk” performed on a cello and was moved to comment, “If all the record players in the world get broken tomorrow, these songs could be heard a hundred years from now.”

8. “That’s Not Me”

The themes of Pet Sounds are insecurity, alienation and longing for comfort, all of which are plainly laid out on “That’s Not Me.” Here, he seems to be searching for a lost sense of identity, stripping himself of all the mannerisms and lifestyle choices that he made in order to be someone different than who he really is. This parlays into the music, which is rockier than most of Pet Sounds but holds itself back from being an outright rock song. It feels the most like old Beach Boys than anything else, yet Wilson’s unconventional structuring of the song make it feel like something else entirely, which was exactly what he was going for. The sadness behind the song really hits home at the end, when Mike Love states “I soon found out that my lonely life wasn’t so pretty” as the song fades out. Here, Wilson is rejecting his past, only to discover how sad his present has become.

7. “You Still Believe in Me”

“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” may be Wilson’s mission statement, heralding Pet Sounds as its energetic opening song. In contrast, “You Still Believe in Me,” the album’s second track, recalls some of the band’s more soulful work, featuring the Beach Boys singing in dripping harmony and Wilson’s angelic voice pushing through in the higher register. Originally titled “In My Childhood,” “You Still Believe in Me” may lack the punch of some of the rockers on Pet Sounds, but it still gets under your skin.

The theme of innocence, which runs throughout Pet Sounds, is prevalent here. Wilson said he tried to get in touch with his femininity to add gentleness to the track. “I was able to close my eyes and go into a world and sing a little more effeminately and more sweet—which allows a lot more love to come down through me,” he said, adding that the masculine bravado of Kenny Rogers was the antithesis of what he was trying to accomplish on “You Still Believe in Me.”

6. “Here Today”

It’s easy to forget how young the Beach Boys were when they started; they essentially grew up and came of age in the public eye. “Here Today” very much feels like the work of a grown up Brian Wilson wanting to warn his past self. At least, it’s the work of the adult that Brian Wilson aspires to be. Wilson was always a bit of an old soul, and “Here Today” feels very much like a father warning his son about the dangers of young love. Of course, Wilson wasn’t that old yet, so the wisdom he strives for isn’t there. The wounds he sings about are too fresh; the fleeting nature of love is still very real and painful for him. Thus, no matter how many drums and vocal harmonies he places to mask it, Wilson’s bitterness remains the focal point of “Here Today.” He’s a sad man warning others of how sad things can get.

5. “I Know There’s an Answer”

Initially titled “Hang On to Your Ego,” “I Know There’s an Answer” may be the odd duck lyrically-speaking. Moving away from songs about love and heartbreak, both iterations of “I Know There’s an Answer” were inspired by Wilson’s burgeoning experimentation with psychedelic drugs such as LSD. In the initial version of the song, Wilson sang, “Hang on to your ego/ Hang on but I know that you’re gonna lose the fight,” as a warning that those using LSD will likely lose their identity.

Enter Mike Love who objected to the drug references in the lyrics. Backed by Al Jardine, Love suggested alternative lyrics. Wilson caved and used Love’s changes. Not all of the drug references were removed though as “They trip through their day and waste all their thoughts at night” remains. Even though its lyrics break with the rest of Pet Sounds, “I Know There’s an Answer” is a welcome respite from the childhood reverie Wilson set out to convey on the record.

4. “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”

Exactly what times does 1966 Brian Wilson not fit into? He could be speaking as a young person, rebelling against the staid conservatism that so many young people were starting to find distasteful and suffocating. But he could also be referring to the changing world in which he is entering, a world of free love, free ideas and mind-expanding hallucinogens. It’s a world that an introvert like Wilson would find little comfort in. Wilson avoids specifics here, preferring to focus on those internal feelings rather than the external causes. Musicians gather around him in a joyous funeral march as Wilson laments his own misplacement in society; he can’t even bring himself to be a force of change in the world because that very world will stand in his way. Here, Wilson is defeated; he isn’t content to be a man out of time, but he seems resigned to this fate.

3. “Caroline, No”

One of the saddest songs ever written, “Caroline, No” is one of the gems in Brian Wilson’s jewel box of songs. Closing out the album on a somber note, “Caroline, No” is not only a paean to a lost lover, but a plea for a return to simpler times. Tumult engulfed the Beach Boys at the time and Wilson was cracking under the pressure to not only produce good pop music, but to stifle his desire to move away from bubble gum singles.

Co-written by Tony Asher, who based the lyrics on a girlfriend who dumped him, moved to New York and cut her hair, “Caroline, No” received a name change when it’s original title, “Carol, I Know, was misheard.” It is one of the band’s most beloved songs, with musicians from Lou Reed to Neil Young alluding to it in their songs. “That song to me is a real tear jerker,” Wilson once said. Like the fading sunset completing a gorgeous summer day, “Caroline, No” closes Pet Sounds not in triumph, but as a lament, its sounds of a train and barking dogs trailing off into infinity.

2. “God Only Knows”

Here’s a fun exercise: Put on “Surfin’ U.S.A.” or any of the other early Beach Boys songs, and then put on “God Only Knows” immediately afterward. It doesn’t just sound like different bands; it sounds like different eras of music altogether. Pet Sounds isn’t just a great album; it’s a quiet revolution of thought. It changed the way that pop music could be considered, and “God Only Knows” is the perfect example of that. It subtly mixed different eras and musical ideas to create something that can’t be reduced down to a specific genre. If we can claim that it’s a sort of pop music, it’s because “God Only Knows” was one of the first songs of its kind.

Melodically, Wilson composed something as sweet as one would expect from a master melodicist. When arranging the song, though, he abandoned tradition, eschewing guitars in favor of strings, accordions and wooden block percussion. He gives the Wrecking Crew a brief moment to shine on the bridge, where time signatures briefly shift into almost another song entirely. Most of all, he used his band’s greatest strength—their voices—to focus on a single idea. They aren’t telling a story about love; they’re meditating on an idea of love, loss and mortality as expressed through that famous chorus line: “God only knows what I’d be without you.” As it ends, the band erupts into some sort of chant in the round, overwhelmed with joy over the kind of love that leads one to contemplate what the Almighty has planned for them. This is how you change pop music forever in three minutes or less.

1. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice”

Pet Sounds begins with arguably its best song, “Wouldn’t it Be Nice.” The album ends on a note of sadness with “Caroline, No” and this opening track is also a lament of sorts, albeit one at a quicker tempo. It is told from the perspective of a young person, wishing that they were older, old enough to run off and get married. Featuring a lyric written almost entirely by Tony Asher, “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” serves as a manifesto for the themes running through Pet Sounds. (And in case Mike Love sues us, he did supposedly contribute the “Good night my baby/ Sleep tight my baby” couplet that ends the song).

A pocket symphony in all the best ways, “Wouldn’t it Nice” features bells, horns, vocal harmonies and harps on top of drums, guitar and bass. The song is layer upon layer of sounds. After the beat of a single drum, the song changes key from A major to remote flat submediant key of F after eight beats, something not alien in jazz or classical music, but revelatory in the pop music world. Then those sublime harmonies kick in. “Wouldn’t it Be Nice” and Pet Sounds sounded light years ahead of anything the Beach Boys had done up to that point and still stand as some of the most important pop music written in the 20th century.

4 Comments

  1. Jim

    May 27, 2017 at 2:53 am

    Lets Go Away for Awhile is my favorite moment in music history, this is rubbish

    Reply

  2. Anonymous

    February 16, 2018 at 2:44 am

    You forgot a track. ‘Pet Sounds,’ another instrumental, is the penultimate track.

    Reply

  3. yermom

    July 30, 2018 at 4:03 pm

    shit opinion. let’s go away for awhile is GOAT

    Reply

  4. I Guess I Just Wasn’t Made For These Lists

    September 6, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    It is Rolling Stone’s great curse that all of these lists exist. Should certain boundaries exist to separate great art from mediocre? Yes, but why be so blatant about it? Nothing is 43.62% more artistically significant than something else. Pet Sounds is heavily praised because of its cohesiveness of theme (i.e. concept album). Please understand that ranking songs will never work well for concise and well made albums, and view the work as a complete whole rather than its parts.

    Reply

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