Counterbalance No. 1: The Beach Boys' 'Pet Sounds'
Presenting the debut of a new regular feature on Sound Affects: Counterbalance, where Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time.
The Canon. The Greatest Albums of All Time. For decades, they’ve been analyzed, ranked, charted and graphed—so much so that a Swedish statistician has developed a mathematical formula to enumerate them for posterity at Acclaimedmusic.net. But after so many years and so many lists and so many spirited arguments in pubs and record shops around the world, one question remains: do these critics’ darlings really hold up, or are they just hyped up?
Enter Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger. For years, Mendelsohn and Klinger toiled through a tag-team article called Counterbalance, hashing out the relative merits of new releases for their local Chicken Dinner Newspaper. But that was a long time ago—before the economy crashed, sending their frivolous Arts & Entertainment section down in flames.
After wandering in the wilderness, lost and directionless, Mendelsohn and Klinger have returned to take on their most challenging assignment: the Greatest Albums of All Time. They begin with the Granddaddy of Them All—the Beach Boys’ 1966 opus Pet Sounds. Hang on to your ego!
Klinger: OK, Mendelsohn, here are the rules: We go over to Acclaimedmusic.net, a site that finally brings much-needed order to the often capricious world of rock criticism. This guy compiles every professionally done list he can get his hands on, puts them into a giant supercomputer the size of my kitchen, and the end result is the Top 3000 albums of all time. You and I are going to go through them one by one until we’re either done or they close down the Internet. You ready?
Mendelsohn: I’m ready. But quite frankly, I'm really surprised that the number one album of all time is the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds. I know the list fluctuates from time to time but I would have thought the top spot would have gone to the Beatles. Are we in the midst of a Beatles backlash?
Klinger: I have a few theories about that, which I'm sure we'll get to over the course of this discussion. But funnily enough, this list stays pretty well entrenched. Nothing can topple the fearsome juggernaut that is Pet Sounds, and it’s likely nothing ever will. Especially not some moptop-shaking Liverpudlians!
Actually, my first theory as to why addresses your Beatles point directly; it’s a simple case of vote splitting. Critics are torn between the Fabs’ most noted classics (Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, Yellow Submarine), and so each one will get a percentage of the votes—same with Dylan or the Rolling Stones. But the Beach Boys only have this one album. And what an album it is. Shall I wax rhapsodic first, or would you like to do the honors?
Mendelsohn: So what you are saying is the Beatles have a body of work that renders the critics unable to pick a number one, leaving the Beach Boys--who only have one good album--with the top spot by default? Sounds a lot like college football and the BCS, and anybody with a little common sense knows that college football needs a playoff system. So maybe, what I’m trying to get at, in a roundabout way, is that we need a playoff system to determine the greatest album of all time. . .
Klinger: Ah, I can see it now: thousands of fans packed into an arena, listening carefully for the nuances that separate the 237th greatest album of all time from the 236th. All carried live on VH-1 Classic. But to answer your Beach Boys question—many good albums; one great album. Pet Sounds.
Also, I can’t help noticing you have yet to begin waxing rhapsodic. Shall I begin?
Mendelsohn: All right, all right. I’m just having a hard time working up to waxing, let alone rhapsodic. I have a bit of a context problem with this album due to my history with it. Pet Sounds was one of my mother’s favorite albums. As a result, I’ve heard it many, many times since I was a child. Anytime “Sloop John B” or “Wouldn't It Be Nice” or “God Only Knows” comes on I’m instantly five years old again, rocking out to this album in the family’s station wagon. Listening to it now results in tsunami-like waves of nostalgia. When I do manage to put all that aside and give it a critical listening, I’m impressed with the quality of the pop songs, but I keep hitting on the word “cloying”. Seriously cloying.
Klinger: Really, your mom was a big Pet Sounds fan? No wonder you're such a pop geek—it’s in your genetic makeup! My mom was a big Neil Diamond fan, so geekery may have skipped a generation in our family.
Mendelsohn: Yeah, my mom is a huge Beach Boys fan. I heard a lot of it growing up, which was awesome, but I also heard a lot of Jan and Dean, which was not so awesome. And yes, I love pop. But I love pop that rocks (I also love Pop Rocks candy). Good pop has to have guitar and drums that aren't relegated to bit players behind the harmonizing castrati that make up the majority of the Beach Boys.
Klinger: But “cloying”, though, that's a strong allegation. What cloyed you?
Mendelsohn: What on this album isn’t cloying? From the accordion in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to ever-present harmonizing, to the clip-clop horse sound effect in “God Only Knows”, it goes on and on. I know Phil Spector was an inspiration and that meant the WALL OF SOUND but there is a lot of silly stuff on Pet Sounds. You don’t feel even the least bit cloyed by this?
Klinger: Uncloyed. And I'm highly cloyable. But here’s why. Throughout this whole record there’s an undercurrent of real sadness. It makes all the bike horns and banjos and gewgaws seem all the more poignant. Take the song “Here Today”. Musically, Wilson creates a mood that perfectly captures the rush of infatuation, with a driving beat and vertical-sounding melody. But lyrically it’s a song that says, “Don't bother. You’re just going to get dumped.”
And it’s that sadness that's behind the appeal of Pet Sounds. At his core, Brian Wilson is a sad pop geek. He wasn’t cool like Dylan or cynical like Lennon or priapic like Jagger. Luckily for him, most music critics are sad pop geeks, too. He couldn’t have fully realized it at the time, but he made a record just for them.
Mendelsohn: Wait, wait, wait. Are you trying to tell me that the only reason Pet Sounds is so highly regarded is because most music critics are sad, maladjusted losers who couldn’t get laid if the stench of dejection were the world’s strongest aphrodisiac, and that Brian Wilson somehow managed to unwittingly tap into that?
Klinger: Well, I think I put it nicer.
But clearly it’s not the only reason. Pet Sounds also marks a shift in the album as we know it. Few other artists were thinking in terms of the album as a cohesive unit, and it was especially rare among groups like the Beach Boys, who’d had such success as a singles group. The Beatles were the only other group to step up their game in that way (Dylan too, but his success wasn’t as mainstream. The Stones were still a few years off from making consistently great LPs). After Pet Sounds, even the Top 40 groups were thinking bigger. That’s not always a good thing (a lot of crappy, crappy pop groups suddenly felt obliged to Say Something), but it’s important.
Mendelsohn: I can get on board with that. Pet Sounds does speak to a large base of hard core
losers fanatics and for those it doesn’t hit thematically there are always those cloying arrangements to draw them in. The album also marks a major shift in the material for the Beach Boys (always a necessity in garnering critical acclaim—as I'm sure we will see in future installments) away from fast cars and cute girls to something much more intangible, and as you noted, it proved to be a watershed moment in the evolution of the album as art. I’m still not completely sold on Pet Sounds as Number One—and I could go on at length about it—but I understand why it has held onto the top spot for so long.
Klinger: And unless the Beatles reunite, so shall it always be.