Are the "Pet Sounds" Lyrics Any Good?
I've been thinking about the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds (which places me in a rather large group, I know) and have been wondering how large the imbalance is between the quality of the music and the quality of the words. Clearly Pet Sounds is a masterpiece of modern pop music. That's beyond dispute. Yet no one would deny that the music is more brilliant than the lyrics. My feeling has always been that the lyrics are serviceable: they do just enough to keep the listener engaged at that level but mostly stay out of the way so that Brian Wilson's elegant, magical sound world can shine.*
But the more I think about, I'm coming to believe that the Pet Sounds lyrics are better than serviceable, not that Brian Wilson would balk at that description. After all, he hired an advertising jingles composer, Tony Asher, to take his rough ideas and craft them into verse. In listening more critically last week I noticed that the lyrics seem artless because there is a complete absence of metaphor on the album. Rather astonishing. The lyrics don't have layers! But this is very much in the innocent spirit of Pet Sounds, which portrays the feelings of the various phases of adolescence. The lyrics offer direct, unmediated statements of need and confusion, a perfect form for the words to take. Naive art, art brut. So, do the lyrics rise to the level of the music? No, perhaps no words ever could. But the balance is much closer than I previously thought. Serviceable? No, more like apt.
* It seems to me that Pet Sounds is the inverse of Dylan's masterpiece Blood on the Tracks, where the instrumentals are serviceable and exist mostly to keep things moving along to prop up Dylan's exquisite lyrics (my favorite being "Idiot Wind," but who would argue with "Tangled Up in Blue"?). What masterpieces feature a better balance? How about Exile on Main Street? Which suggests a good question for further research: Can an album be a masterpiece if the words and music are not equally great?