Brian Wilson performed “Pet Sounds” with his band and the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall on Friday and Saturday. (Photo by Winslow Townson)
The title of “greatest album ever” is obviously subjective. When someone says “greatest album ever,” what they usually mean is, “my favorite album ever.” But there are some albums that are objectively in the conversation, because they are so widely regarded as great, innovative and/or influential by critics and other musicians, and because they appear at or near the top of one greatest albums list after another. The Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds” is one of those albums.
“Pet Sounds” also happens to be one of my favorite albums ever, maybe my favorite depending on the day. I listen to it and just marvel at Brian Wilson’s arrangements and production, at the use of so many different and often unusual instruments, at the introspective lyrics that were so different than those on The Beach Boys’ early hits, and of course at the classic Beach Boys vocal harmonies.
On Saturday night, I got to watch Wilson perform “Pet Sounds” (along with 19 other Beach Boys or Wilson solo songs) backed by a 10-piece band and the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall. The 73-year-old Wilson’s voice isn’t what it once was, he needed help getting on and off stage, and he did more sitting at his piano than actually playing it.
Yet the music was still great. Wilson’s backing band is full of talented musicians who nailed not just the drum, guitar, bass and keyboard parts, but also most of the other cool instruments you hear throughout “Pet Sounds” (the train and barking dogs were left out, which I guess is understandable). Matt Jardine, son of original Beach Boy Al Jardine, was great as the falsetto vocalist, both in lead and backing capacity. And the Pops provided the full orchestral sound an album like “Pet Sounds” deserves while also adding a nice twist to earlier Beach Boys songs like “I Get Around.”
That “Pet Sounds” could still sound great despite Wilson not being what he once was as a musician shouldn’t be surprising. Wilson is a genius songwriter, arranger and producer, and part of his genius is that he allows others to thrive.
He had one of the best studio bands ever assembled at his disposal while recording “Pet Sounds”, and he didn’t just boss them around. He listened to their feedback and suggestions and was willing to tweak his music. He sometimes liked their mistakes more than what he originally had, so he went with the “mistakes.” He gave the lead vocals on “God Only Knows,” probably the best song he ever wrote, to his brother Carl because he thought Carl would do it better than he could (and he was right).
The musicians and singers are different, but Wilson is still doing that. He doesn’t try to sing notes he can’t sing anymore, because he has others (specifically Matt Jardine) who can do that instead. He doesn’t try to play anything complicated on piano, because he has better piano players in his band. Wilson wanted “Pet Sounds” to sound as good as it possibly could, and it’s clear that’s still the case. Wilson has always set the bar high for himself, and you get the sense that he wouldn’t tour “Pet Sounds” if the live performances weren’t going to clear that bar.
Wilson says this tour is the last time he’ll ever perform “Pet Sounds” live, and he seems like the kind of guy who sticks to his word. I feel fortunate that I got to see one of those performances. When you’re someone like me who’s 27 years old but whose favorite albums came out mostly in the ‘60s and ‘70s, you accept that you’re not going to have a chance to ever see too many of those albums performed live.
Performances of entire albums start to finish are rare enough anyways. Performances of albums that are 40-50 years old by the original artist (and let’s be clear- “Pet Sounds” is more of a Brian Wilson album than a Beach Boys album) are much rarer. So getting to see “Pet Sounds,” which turned 50 in May, performed live in 2016 and having it sound as true to the original as could possibly be expected is something special that I’ll never forget.