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Pet Sounds. There’s so much to say about that album, yet at the same time, probably everything that needs to be said about it has already been said. It took quite a while to sink in that the Beach Boys were serious musicians. You always associated them with good time surf music and fluffy stuff. They didn’t seem to take themselves that seriously. That’s the problem when you have a band name with “Boys” in the title. In spite of their artistic achievements, it was hard to take the Beastie Boys, the Dead Boys seriously.

One of the Pet Sounds reissues came out in 1990. I got it on cassette, and by that time I was probably 1-2 years of my full scale immersion into pop / alternative rock music. It was already a full blown addiction, I probably already knew the contents of around 100 albums very well by then.

I’ll always associate it with some memories when I first heard it. Singapore had just been done hosting the SEA games, and we thought our football team was going into the finals against Thailand, but instead we got knocked out by the Myanmese via Lim Tong Hai’s infamous two own goals. But we attended the closing ceremony anyway, and probably that was the closest thing I had ever seen to a National Day Parade, with all the lights and spectacular visuals and everything.

The other thing, and this is probably a coincidence, we were also attending meditation classes. Or at least I just went in for two sessions. So I suppose I was in a very serene mood when I started absorbing “Pet Sounds”. And that’s the thing about that album that somehow people don’t really talk about: it was nicknamed “Teenage Symphonies to God”. God. “Pet Sounds” is spiritual music, sacred music. It is about a teenager growing and suffering, but somehow also getting in touch with his spiritual side.

And listening to the album will also bring back memories of a trip to New Zealand half a year earlier, with all its wondrous scenery and natural splendour. In a way Pet Sounds is the perfect soundtrack if you’re going to a beautiful place with snow capped mountains.

But it would always remind me of a nice happy moment in my life. After all, “Pet Sounds” may be about disappointment, but it is also about the possibility of a deep and profound happiness – if you can keep it.

Personally, I found secondary school a struggle at first, and only started to turn things around, maybe just in time for me to be able to leave that place with my head held high. Things were coming together. My schoolwork was less of a disaster, and I was learning not to screw things up all the time. I still wasn’t a star in my ECAs, but there were a few small little prizes to be picked up here and there. I had made one or two close friendships (although maybe I was blissfully unaware that they were at that time on the verge of unravelling.) I had gone on two excellent vacations. I was never the best scout in my troop, but I was pleased to learn that I was capable of withstanding some pretty rough treatment. I had assembled one hell of a record collection. I had gone some way towards figuring out the meaning of life.

And maybe it was in that peaceful calm and happy state of mind that one month later, in what I considered to be my crowning achievement of my secondary school days: I wrote a school play. I had grown up a little, and I knew that I had progressed quite a bit from a few years earlier when I was a complete emotional wreck. Basically I was realising that when I left my secondary school, there would be happy memories to look back on. I’d say that period of time was probably in anticipation of a bountiful harvest.

(Of course, if you know the Singapore school system at that time, there was one more hurdle to be cleared, albeit the biggest one of them all: the “O” levels. )

I was probably in a reflective mood, which is kinda funny because that’s in contrast to “Pet Sounds”, where Brian Wilson was looking forward to a happy adulthood – which he basically didn’t get. On the other hand, I was looking back at what I consider on balance to be a happy childhood. That school play, once you unravel all the meanings and layers, was in its way a goodbye to childhood, and a loss of innocence. Being a teenager is pretty poignant because it’s nested in between two very different states, there’s a lot of looking forwards and a lot of looking backwards too.

It will be forever a blessing that I came across this album while I was a teenager, and I was able to relate to it. Brian Wilson was in his twenties when he wrote that stuff. Certainly, it just wouldn’t do to listen to it for the first time while on the wrong side of 30. It is very much a growing pains album. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is about a teenager wishing he were older so that he can live in whatever romantic fantasy he lives in. “You Still Believe In Me” is about redemption through romantic love (that may be real or imagined). “That’s Not Me” is an expression of vulnerability. “Don’t Talk” is about the first flush of romantic love. “I’m Waiting For the Day” is about yearning for that perfect love affair. “God Only Knows” blurs the line between romantic love and the idea of a God that watches over you: it’s not entirely clear who he’s addressing, but it’s clear that there is some parallel between the two. “Hang On to Your Ego / I Know There’s An Answer” is a little edgy because it may or may not be about the fraught relation between the Wilsons and their cousin Mike Love. And some people think it’s about LSD. But towards the end of the album, there are hints that this fragile bliss will eventually disappear like a puff of smoke. “Here Today” is a warning that the romantic love that you are dreaming about may not materialize, or may end in tears. “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” only hints that Brian Wilson’s grip on reality is tenuous. “Caroline No” is a paean for shattered dreams.

In between, the two instrumentals and “Sloop John B” lighten things up somewhat, but it’s pretty heavy going emotionally, veering between elysian bliss and the unsettling knowledge of your own vulnerabilities.

Now the album is famous for its quirky instrumentation, but what impressed me the most were the quality of the songs. Every piece of music there is absolutely top notch. There is no mediocre stuff anywhere on the main album. Even if all of the material had more conventional arrangements, it would still be one of the greatest albums of all time.

Anyway, that was a pretty long-winded preamble. I thought I’d put up here a link to a short transcription of “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”. It’s in shitty MIDI, and it doesn’t sound anywhere as great as the original, but at least you can see what’s going on.

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