Pet Sounds as a whole is for want of a better word an odd album, rife with ambivalence and contradiction. One the upside, the auteur, Brian Wilson, is arguably at his creative peak... in fact he won't actually finish a whole album for another twenty years or so. The album features two major radio hits (Wouldn't It Be Nice and Sloop John B) as well as arguably the best recording Brian ever produced, God Only Knows. The arrangement and production values are peerless, especially when heard in the new crystal-clear digital stereo mixes in which every nuance of both instrument and voice is audible. And all anecdotal indications are that Brian was excessively pleased with this project and how it turned out. I personally think it is wonderful and a very worthy candidate for a status it has achieved in more than one context: the designation as the best pop album, ever.
Yet, the downside; one cannot deny the feeling that permeating nearly all of the lyrics on this record is a sense of something wrong, a persistent unhappiness and alienation. Ironically, while Smile was supposed to be Brian's "teenage symphony to God" it is on this record that we come closest to such an entity: the subject matter is clearly relevant to teenagers (although it is mostly about an end to teenage life and a desire to transcend its limitations), it is symphonic in its use of instruments and the overall length and breadth of the musical "journey" involved; and of course it does contain the single pop song most successfully evocative of an association between the Deity and romance.
Even that most devotional of pieces is ridden with the doubts born of experience, always mentioning negatives (I may not always love you, if you should ever leave me). Similarly, the somewhat optimistic Wouldn't It Be Nice is permeated with frustration, the inability of the teenager in love to control his own life and spend the night with his lover.
The rest of the material is even more illusion-free and emotionally complex, constantly referring to issues generally beyond the scope of your average 14- to 16-year-old. The speaker is constantly apologizing for his own inadequacies (I know perfectly well I'm not where I should be, I hate to be a downer, That's Not Me) and the more positive songs like I Know There's An Answer or Don't Talk (Put Your Head on my Shoulder) are full of sophisticated, mixed feelings and qualifiers.
Forming the emotional center of the piece are the more overtly pessimistic and alienated songs, such as I Just Wasn't Made for These Times and Caroline, No. Both bespeak a certain resignation to life's limitations, and an inability to feel hopeful and comfortable in the face of the compromises and failures to which the flesh becomes heir as the years drag on and hormone-induced optimism fades in the face of fact. The one cover tune, Sloop John B, is in many ways representative of the whole: impeccably arranged, wonderfully performed, yet about social chaos, the inability to fit in with one's surroundings, and generally a "bad trip."
While it is certainly reasonable for Brian to address these issues, given his own life at the time, and the album is indeed brilliant, one has to say that its lack of contemporary commercial success may have had a lot to do with these sophisticated themes. Looking to the outside world, it's enlightening to reflect on the music that was commercially successful in this era and just afterwards: bubblegum tunes with sensual and redudant titles along the lines of Sugar Sugar, Yummy Yummy Yummy and Chewy Chewy; the breathy Motown moanings of Diana Ross; and the optimistic orgiasm of the San Francisco soundtrack to the upcoming Summer of Love.
On the musical side, Pet Sounds is again more of a road not taken than a new direction for popular music. The Chuck Berry/R+B influence is just about gone from Brian's music at this point, and electric guitar plays a very minor role in the overall sound (it's featured, for example, far less prominently than harpsichord or sleighbells on this record), in the year predating guitar heroes Hendrix, Clapton, and so on. Brian's elaborate orchestrations and sophisticated vocal parts hit the market just as minimalist configurations such as Cream, the Doors, Jefferson Airplane and so forth are about to dominate the "underground" or noncommercial scene. It's hard to avoid agreeing with Brian that, while brilliant and producing his best music, he indeed simply was not made for the times he had to live and produce in.
One could go on and on about this, but there is no need. Those who know the album well have gotten the point by now, and either agree or disagree. Those who don't know it well, hopefully are now motivated to do some more listening...