Few albums have been so dissected and so discussed as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds (and this column isn’t about to help things). Upon release, it was viewed as a commercial disappointment and little else until Beatles’ PR man Derek Taylor successfully convinced all of Great Britain that Brian Wilson was a genius. Then when people heard about SMiLE, it quickly became known as the precursor to the real masterpiece — only SMiLE never came out.
Thirty years later or so, it finally settled as a record that many found fashionable to declare as both the ultimate triumph of all rock music and the most overrated piece of rubbish ever laid to tape. And then SMiLE actually did come out. How confusing.
Where does Pet Sounds stand today? Well if SMiLE really is as superior as people once believed it would be, then Pet Sounds is in trouble, because Kanye West walked all over SMiLE in last year’s critics’ polls. If anything, this shows how difficult it is to evaluate Wilson’s best work within a modern context. What I want to know — what I’ve labored over internally for months now — is whether Pet Sounds currently holds up when compared to its successor.
I’ve analyzed this so endlessly that for me the argument now amounts to the oversimplified match-up of the timeless sentimentality of Pet Sounds versus the compositional brilliance of SMiLE. That is not to say that Pet Sounds lacks any musical luster or that SMiLE is devoid of poignant moments; those are just what I view as each of the respective albums’ defining traits. Pet Sounds is the chronicle of a lonely, depressed prodigy: “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” “God Only Knows” and several others will never be topped, for many reasons. But Smile is the successful amalgamation of most of Wilson’s best work following Pet Sounds. Simply put, the album is bookended by “Heroes and Villains” and “Good Vibrations.”
I’d like to wrap things up with concrete, indisputable evidence for why one album is better than the other, but I lack the proper perspective. If you haven’t noticed, this is a college newspaper. But if I were put at gunpoint and forced to choose between the two albums — as I was when shopping for produce in the local grocery last weekend — I suppose I’d choose Pet Sounds. I’ve never felt particularly vogue bashing it, and I’ve never had a problem taking its immortality for granted. But I basically like SMiLE every time I listen to it, so I don’t know.