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"These are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own." G.K.Chesterton

"You cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion." G.K.Chesterton

"As you perhaps know, I haven't always been a Christian. I didn't go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that."C. S. Lewis

"I blog, therefore I am." Anon

Sunday, April 25, 2004

The Beatification of Brian Wilson... God only knows

a musical interlude...

Let me begin by announcing unambiguously that I am a fan of the music of Brian Wilson and of the Beach Boys. I really do "like" it - with some notable exceptions (trombone dixie, anyone?)... Having made myself clear on this point I must now admit to breaking ranks with received opinion and dissenting from the musical PC of the ruling rock and pop orthodoxy.

Here is my confession:

I have closely listened to the "definitive" Brian Wilson Beach Boys "masterpiece" Pet Sounds dozens of times in the last couple of years - in both its mono and stereo versions - and I just don't get it. I have avidly read a plethora of books about the making of the album, about who played and sang what and when and where, about the musical nuances included in each track, about the symbolic significance of the barking dogs and passing train that ends the recording, about the snippets of studio chatter captured in the background and about the ups and many downs in the life of Brian Wilson and its effect upon his "tortured genius". I have read adoring album reviews from both "lay" music fans and "experts" in the genre. I have heard the praises of the likes of Paul McCartney heaped upon it. I've been to the mountain top. All I can say is hang on to your ego.

Here's one of the milder accolades:
Brian Wilson's gift to 20th-century music elevated this pop album into a beguiling musical and emotional cogency that still operates outside pop culture's fickle space-time continuum--and limited critical lexicon.
(See here for a selection of more typical and less restrained puff pieces.)

But that's not me. Despite my own recognition of Brian Wilson's fine talents as a composer, arranger and producer I feel somewhat like the little boy in the story of the Emperor's New Clothes.

Pet Sounds IS - oh, Caroline no - wildly overrated.

There I've said it. Maybe I just wasn't made for these times, but no matter how much I admire Brian Wilson and recognize his talent I just can't find it in myself to put on rose coloured glasses or take the blue pill and agree with the orthodox opinion that Pet Sounds is the greatest pop album ever made and that Mr Wilson is a certified musical genius. He may be a master of melody (perhaps) and a pop prodigy (probably) but a "genius"? Wouldn't it be nice, but no.

There are great moments on Pet Sounds and some lovely tunes suffused with a strong sense of wistful introspection for which the contribution of lyricist Tony Asher should be acknowledged. But it really isn't that "cutting edge" or even, dare I say it, "ground breaking". It certainly was a major departure from previous Beach Boys output but calling this album "the greatest album of all time" is an overblown and extravagant piece of revisionist romanticism. Here today everyone in the business of Pop and Rock seems to be getting in on the act, trying to outdo each other by praising the album and relating how pivotal it is to their own musical and personal development as a "serious" artist.

Alas one may be condemned as a heretic for even suggesting that it may not be THAT good.

I thought I was out on a limb on this issue but I have discovered that there are a few other heretics out there who can see that the Emperor, while not completely naked, is not adorned in the finest royal purple either. God only knows my admiration and respect for Brian Wilson remains undiminished. But I agree with Michael Barclay that:

Wilson's truly amazing accomplishment wasn't Pet Sounds, but the single he recorded immediately after: "Good Vibrations". In a mere three-and-a-half minutes, Wilson betters all the highs of Pet Sounds: the band's vocal intricacies are in full force; it's structurally daring for what is essentially a bubble-gum pop song; and the instrumentation features theremin and a rhythm section driven not by drums but cellos, bass, and tambourines. Perhaps the song's commercial validation makes it less cool than the (deservedly) popular indifference Pet Sounds met upon its release.

Yes, Pet Sounds the album is just alright with me; it is "good" and certainly historically important for pop music but, in all fairness, I could only call it "great" as a piece of high quality elevator music. And I'm not damning it with faint praise: I really like elevator music.

Sarah D. Bunting at Tomato Nation thinks that there may in fact be a "Pet Sounds Principle" that operates among the musical cognoscenti but because she invokes the "N" word and I have made my own confession I have no need to go there... but you might.

10:54:00 pm