[9 June 2014]
“She Knows Me Too Well” was technically the first song recorded for The Beach Boys Today!, before the band’s All Summer Long album had been released or recording for The Beach Boys Christmas Album had begun. But the song got re-recorded later for Today! and that initial June 8th, 1964 recorded has never been subsequently released (like so many other alternate takes from this and other Beach Boys albums). It’s safe to assume, though, that not much changed between the June and the August recording of the song, compositionally at least. If we look at other tracks from Today! for which earlier recordings that have been released, the changes between versions tend to be in the arrangement and occasionally the lyrics. So while we can’t be sure exactly what changed from the first version of “She Knows Me Too Well” to the final released version, we can imagine that they are fairly similar.
I find this interesting because of the impressive and progressive songwriting in “She Knows Me Too Well”. Craig Slowinski comments, “this track more than any other from the Today! album seemed to point toward the direction [Brian Wilson’s] music would be taking a year later on Pet Sounds.” While I slightly disagree—I gave that distinction to “Please Let Me Wonder” on a previous post—he’s certainly not far off. The harmonically complex song perfectly expresses the tension and confusion of the lyrics, but always manages to be accessible and tuneful in a way that only Brian Wilson can pull off. That the track was first recorded so early in the album process (before the process even began, in fact) and manages to be one of the most forward-thinking tracks the Beach Boys had put out up to this point, is quite astonishing.
It’s also interesting because of its simple arrangement. While the songwriting is forward-thinking and reminiscent of what we will hear later on Pet Sounds, the instrumentation is limited. In fact, the recording that made it onto Today! was recorded at the same session as “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”, meaning that all the instruments were played by the Beach Boys themselves. The instrumental performances aren’t particularly impressive as they were on “When I Grow Up”, but having the sophisticated chord progressions performed without the help of Wilson’s lush instrumental arrangements gives the track an intriguing and unique sound on the album. That and the novel use of what is credited as “microphone boom with screwdriver”, which produces a high-pitched bell-like sound in the recurring opening theme.
The vocal arrangement, as we can expect, is also exquisite. The song’s opening theme oscillates between two seemingly unrelated chords, held together by intricate wordless vocals and ending with Mike Love singing a tag of “she knows me” which hints at the chorus melody to come. The gesture then returns throughout the verses. This kind of intricate vocal writing appears later in the verse as well to add background “ooh”s to Brian Wilson’s graceful vocal lead. And in the chorus, the group sings “she knows me too well” in complex counterpoint while Wilson’s voice soars above in his falsetto. By this point in their career, there’s nothing shocking about a Beach Boys song having an incredible vocal arrangement, but “She Knows Me Too Well” is so wonderfully elegant that you can’t help but be taken over by their voices.
The lyrics, penned by Love and Wilson, offer a fascinating and honest perspective on relationships. Throughout the song, the narrator explores his own relational shortcomings but continues to delude himself into thinking that everything is alright. The first verse expresses his guilt, admitting “I treat her so mean, I don’t deserve what I have / And I think that she’ll forget just by making her laugh”. The second verse, half of which is repeated after the bridge, discusses his jealousy and insecurity, hinting at his emotional abuse of her. He sings, “I get so jealous of the other guy / And then I’m not happy till I make her break down and cry”. But he also recognizes his hypocrisy: “When I look at other girls, it must kill her inside”. But all these issues, in his mind at least, are taken care of by the fact that “she can tell I really love her”. The choruses express the sentiment that because she knows him so well, none of these things matter. They do, of course, but his delusion makes for a more interesting song.
Music theorist Philip Lambert describes that opening theme with strangely related chords as embodying the character’s ambivalence, and the fact that it does not return at the end to bookend the song suggests that the character has moved from this internal conflict towards some sort of clarity. “The song’s protagonist”, he writes, “has learned a little something about how to treat a woman.” I’m less optimistic in that regard, but I think that the investigation into this kind of perspective is an interesting addition to the themes on The Beach Boys Today!. So many of the songs on the album deal with personal anxiety, mainly over what the future will bring. “She Knows Me So Well” exhibits a deep anxiety over the present, and how shows how we can mislead ourselves into ignoring our problems. This contrast in ideas adds an interesting element to the album while remaining similar enough to not break a sense of consistency.