Have you ever spent a whole day listening to Pet Sounds, from “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” to “Caroline No,” again and again? Each song is an epiphany, but rapid-fire epiphanies are hard to absorb, so…you have to go back to the beginning.
When you step into the world of Pet Sounds, you’ve stepped into the world of The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. He created Pet Sounds in 1966, in response to The Beatles’ Rubber Soul, which he took as an artistic challenge. In liner notes from a 1990 reissue of Pet Sounds, he writes, “I was obsessed with explaining, musically, how I felt inside.”
I lean in to listen to Pet Sounds. The album is sonically seductive, unfolding as a series of heartbreakingly intimate conversations. At times, it’s been the only music I wanted to hear: decades ago, when I was a young mother in love with the wrong person; a few years ago, when I was reconciling myself to my father’s death just after I’d moved back home.
Does the power of Pet Sounds come from the way Brian felt inside, the way he was able to express that musically? As a lifelong fan, I’ve tracked the legend of Brian Wilson: his years in bed, the piano planted in a sandbox, the psychotherapist who took over his life. It all seemed sad and silly and simply unreal…until I saw Love & Mercy. The 2014 Brian Wilson biopic unpacks his life story in scenes terrible, sweet and strange. It feels very real, and it’s accurate enough that Brian has said the bad times depicted in the film are difficult for him to sit through.
If Pet Sounds was meant to help Brian explain himself, Love & Mercy nobly furthers the mission. We feel his anxieties, experience his hallucinations, taste his fear. A scene on an airplane where he has a panic attack, and another at a dinner party where he has a meltdown, play out in excruciating detail—making it easy to understand the overwhelming sensations he may have been hoping to subdue with drugs.
Love & Mercy’s acting, script, pacing and soundtrack are all strong, and it kept me under its spell. Brian is played by two actors. As the young Brian, Paul Dano draws us in, compelling us to care more about the older, shattered Brian, played by John Cusack. Some of the movie’s most engaging scenes involve the production of Pet Sounds. They echo and extend the pleasures of similar moments in The Glenn Miller Story and The Buddy Holly Story: how will our musical hero capture the sound he hears in his head? Seeing Brian’s life and work portrayed this way gave me a new way to access Pet Sounds, after a lifetime of listening. While I’m amazed by his craft as a producer, I’m astounded by his lack of guile, and how it informs his songwriting. Pet Sounds packs its emotional wallop because of Brian’s inability to disguise his deep feelings, or to encode them or distance them with irony. No hymn or folk song sounds more pure.
I find it hard to wrap my head around the extremes of challenge and blessing in Brian’s life. His abusive childhood, his commercial success, his mental illness, his artistic genius, his addictions and his supportive marriages. The death of his brother. His years exploited by his psychotherapist. Dealing with Mike Love! Love & Mercy tells the whole story, powerfully, adding layers to my appreciation of Brian and Pet Sounds. What happened to him is terrible and inspiring. He’s Brian Wilson, after all, and his life has been impossibly hard. What of those who face similar challenges who are not famous geniuses? Aren’t we inclined to greet them with Fear & Intolerance? I think that’s what Brian wants us to get from his 1988 song “Love and Mercy.” I don’t know what motivated this uncharacteristically show-biz performance of the song—he’s as sweetly awkward as a kid in a middle-school musical—but maybe he hoped the pizazz would sell the audience on his message: “Love and mercy, that’s what you need tonight.”