Ever since its release, one album of the rock’n'roll era has consistently been awarded the moniker of the greatest of all time—and some four decades later, The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is still an amazing work of sonic experimentation and cohesive composition. It confirmed the Fab Four as a lasting musical dynasty, and announced the recording studio as an “instrument”, a viable presence in the sonic arsenal. Yet the sad fact is that someone had already set all these benchmarks before, using their own inner muse to make sounds so sumptuous and special that, over time, they have come to challenge and even supplant the efforts of Mssrs. McCartney, Lennon, Harrison, and Starr. Indeed, if it weren’t for his eventual free fall into madness and drug myth, Brian Wilson would be heralded as the true aural genius of the ‘60s, and his stunning album, Pet Sounds, would be the oft-referenced champion.
Yet if you listen to Wall Street Journal music critic and novelist Jim Fusilli, such a talent transfer has already taken place. True, the British laude Wilson over their own beloved mop tops, with even Sir Paul himself citing him as one of the greatest songwriters ever. In Fusilli’s excellent Continuum volume for the 33 1/3 series, he finds the universal truth at the heart of Pet Sounds, and offers his own personal view as to why this album, above all others, is a truly timeless masterwork. As a young man living on the East Coast, Fusilli followed the typical path of idle youth to angst-filled adolescence. Into his troubled world came Wilson, his sublime little symphonies to God a bright burst of sonic sunshine eclipsing the dull gray days of his life. And yet, in middle-aged introspection, the impact of Pet Sounds on Fusilli was even more profound. Not only was it a kind of wounded psyche wake-up call, it was an indication that even the mighty suffer, lost in the same individual insecurities that us mere mortals are tormented by.
Fusilli sets up his discovery in a wonderful opening passage. Reading someone’s recall of when an album/song clicked can be bracing, even off-putting. Not everyone sees the same thing in melody, nor do they connect to a common chord change. Yet all throughout his book, Fusilli finds just the right words to argue his point. The sentences shimmer with insight and inflection, finding proper pronouncement for near-impossible explanations of harmony and production. All throughout this 33 1/3 offering, one senses the presence of Pet Sounds playing off in the distance. You can almost hear it, echoing off the invisible surf that laps along the beach inside the minds eye.
Granted, Pet Sounds is a great album, one that requires very little support for its importance as art and as musical innovation. Yet Fusilli finds inventive ways of making these givens new and engaging. He deconstructs each song, painting in personal history (Wilson’s marriage to a 16-year-old singer named Marilyn, his abuse at the hands of hardened dad, Murray) and business concerns (record label Capital just wanted hits), and premises the entire experience as one of necessary introspection on Brian’s part. Through the use of a creative career arc, arguing for songs that would seem completely comfortable in the Pet Sounds setting (“She’s Not the Little Girl I Once Knew,” “Good Vibrations”), we see Wilson building up to this project, placing all his talent into meticulous studio craftsmanship while attempting to capture the complex compositions he heard in his head. Applying actual musical notation, Fusilli uncovers the core of Wilson’s ways, implying that certain stanzas and progressions hint at more than just fascinating verse/chorus combinations.
Indeed, all throughout his Pet Sounds‘s narrative, Fusilli argues for Wilson as the most personal of the ‘60s pop songsmiths. Granted, paeans to fast cars and surfing don’t mesh with this Beach Boy’s real life, but lyrics were never what Wilson truly focused on (though the author points out specific places where that was not the norm). Indeed, what he was trying to do in those endless studio sessions, backed by some of the finest players in all LA, was give voice to the sounds inside his soul, hoping to fashion tunes that actually tapped into the his heart. From the glowing, maturing optimism of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to the sighs of a wounded child inside “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” Fusilli digs deep, looking at everything surrounding the making of this music, and recognizing sonic symbols throughout the album. He argues for the inclusion of Pet Sounds‘s two instrumentals as well as the mostly marketing based decision to add the single “Sloop John B.”
One of the elements Fusilli doesn’t particularly like is the final moment of the album, when the barking of Wilson’s dogs is married to the sound of a passing train. While it inspired The Beatles to mimic the trick at the end of Pepper’s (at least, in its UK version) Fusilli finds no point in having such a studied send-off, especially after the exquisite grace of “Caroline, No.” Yet it’s possible that Wilson wasn’t as out of touch as he had gathered. Maybe, this final bit of aural experimentation was a way of waving goodbye to the past. As the locomotive comes screaming toward the speakers, we hear the friendly yet fierce yelping of those pups, literally hounding the runaway train of fame that Wilson and his band were on. And as it trails off into the distance, we finally get to the point that Fusilli and his book suggest: life is hard, and all we have need is help ... and hope.
For the author, Pet Sounds is the breaking point, the moment when Wilson gave in and lost touch with his mired musical reality. Maybe it was the drugs, or his scattered psyche, but as an artist this Beach Boy would never ride so high again (he came close when his scuttled opus—SMiLE!—was revisited and finally released in 2004). Pet Sounds may have seemed like the promise of more good things to come, but Fusilli sees the truth: it was an elegy to a dissipating desire to create. Just like the lost and lonely boy in a New Jersey bedroom, listening with head-nodding understanding as the vocalist vexed about “not being made for these times” and how he wanted “to die” after discovering that people he wronged still believed in him, Fusilli sees the fragility of Wilson’s ways and concludes that this would be the last time such a creative calling would come over him. Time would indeed take its toll on this wistful wunderkind of the recording studio. But instead of burying his work, the passage of years only made it brighter, and better.
Brian Wilson was like Icarus, flying as close as he could to the warming, inviting rays of the sonic sun. He got far too close and didn’t just melt—he burnt up and blew away. But Jim Fusilli argues that he left behind a singular statement for anyone whose felt friendless, isolated, and misunderstood. Though in song he suggests that, “God only knows” about the effect of loss on the human heart, someone else knew. Brian Wilson crafted Pet Sounds out of love, yearning and belonging, and it spoke to an audience hungry for such a connection. One such saved soul was Jim Fusilli.