But the result was regarded by many—including some of the Beach Boys who sang on it—as too ambitious for its own good. The great heyday of rock criticism, the 1970s, was still to come, and there was certainly no Internet to provide exegeses (read: hot takes). Nevertheless, Wilson patented a type that lives on to this day— that of the reclusive genius whose instrument is the entire studio. Pet Sounds foreshadowed the big-budget psychodramas of the future—albums by Michael Jackson, Prince, Radiohead, and other skittish artists successful enough to find a fully-stocked studio at their ego’s disposal.
Anytime a band or musician disappears into a studio to contrive an album-length mystery, the ghost of Wilson is hovering near. Anticipating the working methods of today, he took to recording his work in fragments, which were collaged together later. He came so close to completing another concept album—this one an odyssey through America called Smile—that Capitol even commissioned cover art. But he lost his resolve. His bandmates, who preferred applying their vocals to songs about the intersection between surfer and girl, were resistant to Wilson’s seemingly arch aspirations. Then there was the ever-present problem of the Beatles. It didn’t matter that Pet Sounds had inspired Paul McCartney to compose a concept album of his own: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which the Beatles launched in 1967, effectively ended the arms race between the two bands. Overwhelmed by the success of Sgt. Pepper, the Beach Boy ran ashore.
Today, of course, music fans venerate boldly ambitious statements like 808s & Heartbreak and Lemonade, and romanticize the precocious talents behind them. But in the late ’60s, there was no readymade narrative against which to plot Wilson—in part because he was pop’s Ur-auteur, first in a line to be populated by Lauryn Hill, Axl Rose, Lee Mavers, and other recluses. He withdrew to a mansion in Bel Air, gained weight, and took up the accoutrements of the legend with lived experience (robe, beard, equity in a health-food store). But the myth is stigmatizing: Wilson was never especially pretentious or tortured. He remained enthralled to the goal of the perfect pop song, with the Spector-produced “Be My Baby” as his sacred text. Wilson even attempted several comebacks, and some of them, like 1977’s Love You, yielded rewards.
Nevertheless, Pet Sounds remains the masterpiece. There’s the gorgeous music, which has inspired countless musicians. (REM’s 1998 love letter to the Wilson aesthetic, “At My Most Beautiful”, quotes sleigh bells, cellos, and rumbling tympani.) But there’s also Wilson’s approach. Swap out the Hollywood studio peopled with unionized musicians for a laptop loaded with sound files, and the author of Pet Sounds looks a lot like the godfather of the current age—the first to assemble hits from fragments, the first to turn an album into an occasion. His approach was especially impressive when you consider that what he was splicing together was tape. (Wilson was artisanal, his heirs, digital.) With Pet Sounds, Wilson brought an ambition to pop that it hadn’t previously known and helped make heroes out of producers. “I just wasn’t made for these times,” he sings towards the end of Pet Sounds, a square Beach Boy in a round world. It turns out the lyric was one part boast, one part prognostication.