[19 May 2014]
As discussed in previous posts, the b-side of The Beach Boys Today! is comprised entirely of ballads, contrasting with the up-tempo songs of the a-side. And although both sides contain complex, introspective lyrics, the slow and densely orchestrated songs of the album’s second half inherently feel more personal. So it’s perfect, then, that the side opens with “Please Let Me Wonder”, possibly the most sentimental of the Beach Boys’ songs up to this point in their career. Like so many of the other songs we’ve looked at on Today!, “Please Let Me Wonder” is a layered narrative exposing personal anxieties. Here, Brian Wilson explores ideas of intimacy and love along with the difficulty of growing up and pursuing creative fulfillment.
The first verse sounds like a rumination on losing your virginity, especially with the lyric “I always knew it’d feel this way.” This reading of the lyrics works throughout the rest of the song, with Wilson’s narrator occupying the traditionally feminine role. Over the course of the song, he worries that, though he is in love with her, she is not in love with him. In the chorus, he begs her to “Please let me wonder / If I’ve been the one you’ve loved.” He cherishes “this beautiful image” he has of her and her feelings, as opposed to her reality. Most interesting, though, is the line in the second verse where he sings, “You’ll never know what we’ve been through.” This implies that, although they have been in this relationship together, he has perceived it very differently than she has. She couldn’t possibly know what their relationship has meant to him. Or that’s his fear, at least.
“Please Let Me Wonder” was the first song the Beach Boys recorded in 1965, just one month after Wilson and Marilyn Rovell were married. Even if we assume that he had lost his virginity prior to their marrying, this interpretation of the lyrics makes sense with what Wilson was going through on an emotional level. Progressing a relationship to the next level, whether to sex or to marriage, can make partners feel vulnerable. This would be especially true for the famously over-emotional Brian Wilson, who had gone through his first mental breakdown only weeks before recording this song. With that in mind, reading “Please Let Me Wonder” as using a virginity metaphor to discuss his fears of commitment and intimacy in his own marriage seems like an obvious interpretation of the lyrics.
A first version of the song, sung by Mike Love, contains slightly different lyrics, but these, too, support the marriage anxiety reading. Gone is the interesting “You’ll never know what we’ve been through” lyric, but added are lyrics like, “I’m so afraid of what you’ll say.” The new lyrics emphasize the anxiety the narrator feels and the certainty of his love being unrequited. He begs her “Please don’t say what you want to say” before his chorus advocating ignorance as bliss.
Most interesting to me is why, on the same day of recording, Wilson decided to sing the song himself and change some of the lyrics. The personnel switch can be attributed at least in part to Wilson’s frustration with Love’s performance of his vocal overdubs (as heard on studio outtakes of the song), as well as an indication that Wilson saw “Please Let Me Wonder” as deeply personal. And the lyrical alterations could be assumed were intended to make the song feel less cynical. But I also feel that the changes make the song more ambiguous and open to other interpretations.
It has been said by Brian Wilson himself that “Please Let Me Wonder” was the first song he wrote while high on marijuana. While discussing this in his controversial autobiography, Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Wilson also describes the song as “a plea to the others to let me pursue my own creative path”, a path no doubt helped by the drugs. Even though this description of the lyrics seems a bit revisionist—if he wanted to write a song about frustrations with his creative autonomy, he could have been more direct about it, as on Pet Sounds’s “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”—the alternate meaning is an interesting one.
In this reading, the verses start by discussing how far the band has come and how proud of their accomplishments Wilson is. “I always knew it’d feel this way”, then, is not about sex, but about fame and success. But his pride is cut with apprehension. He asks his bandmates, who rely on him as their primary songwriter and producer, “Can’t you tell my heart is breaking?” This anticipates the distance that will continue to grow between Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys later in the decade, culminating in the shelving of Wilson’s overly-ambitious SMiLE project. In this analysis, the “You” of “You’ll never know what we’ve been through” is actually us, the listeners. This interpretation, however touted by Brian Wilson, falls apart in the chorus. But the ambiguity of the lyrics, allowing for layered meanings, makes “Please Let Me Wonder” one of the most interesting songs on the album.
To accompany these beautiful lyrics is equally beautiful music. “Please Let Me Wonder” remains one of Wilson’s most beloved ballads, and for good reason. Opening with an infectious 12-string guitar line from Carl Wilson, the instrumental arrangement is subtle and balanced throughout, more spacious and lean than Brian Wilson had normally been producing. In that way, “Please Let Me Wonder” marks the true departure from Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound and into Brian’s own distinct producing style. Instead of layers of doublings, hints of different instruments like the organ, the vibraphone, and the 12-string guitar come in and out with short melodic ideas that color the arrangement but don’t overwhelm it. Vocally, the group adds dense harmonies in the intro and chorus over Brian’s sprawling chromatic chords. And the vocal melody in the verse is one of his idiosyncratic lines that snakes up and down in unusual, but lovely ways. More than any song on The Beach Boys Today!, even the wildly complex “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”, “Please Let Me Wonder” points towards what’s to come for the Beach Boys.