May 16, 2022
I think it’s a very everlasting album. I’m very proud of the love that went into it. A lot of love went into that album. And people pick up on that too, and they really like it ’cause they feel the love.Brian Wilson on Pet Sounds
An audacious experiment
In 1966 23-yr-old Brian Wilson cajoled his band mates into the studio for what seemed at the time like an utter hijack of the extremely successful Beach Boys sound. The seemingly non-stop hit formula that had built their reputation was not what Wilson envisioned as his (or the band’s) future. He wanted to give voice to the particular sound arrangements and lyrics percolating in his head, both a departure from the ultra-harmonizing simplistic anthems the band had built its fame on.
The daring experiment became Pet Sounds. More than 50 years later, the album still sounds ahead of its time. Astoundingly it was released a full year before Sargeant Pepper. For those of us who thought The Beach Boys were shallow pop, “Pet Sounds” was a mind-blower of musical and lyrical innovation.
Hailed as one of the first “concept” albums, the album preserves the BB harmonic sound—especially evident on tracks Sloop John B, Wouldn’t It Be Nice?—while showcasing Wilson’s lush, complex, often cacophonous, but strangely melodic vision. I still find the eponymous “Pet Sounds” incredibly fresh and impossible to pigeon-hole, both groovy and experimental. The Baroquesque riff on “God Only Knows,” seemed daring at the time, but beautifully complements the song’s melancholic lyrics.
Brian Wilson was courageous. He took a gamble, choose art over commerce, creative freedom over the always easier status quo. When it was released Pet Sounds did not become a commercial success. The consumer might not have been buying, but musicians were listening, notably John Lennon and Paul McCartney. By 2001, the audience had caught up and the album had gone platinum.
What’s this got to do with painting?
Whenever a track comes up on my studio playlist I am reminded of Wilson’s unwavering choice. And just for a minute or two I am nudged to think about ways in my painting practice that I might take a risk, make the bold choice, fly free.
NB O’er Flanders Fields (above), specially commissioned, is part of the The Pity of War series.