Santa Barbarans will celebrate Brian Wilson’s poetry, a harmonic manifestation of endless summer that’s been in the public ear for three generations, this Memorial Day weekend at the Santa Barbara Bowl with the 50th Anniversary Pet Sounds Tour. Widely considered an iconic masterwork of the American pop-music canon, Pet Sounds, first released in 1966, is a pop symphony that pairs sound effects and electronic manipulations with orchestra-inspired musical constructs. A critical darling for a half century, the Pet Sounds narrative offers waning naiveté on the brink of cynicism in the face of a less innocent age. This psychedelic exploration, layered with Wilson’s wistful lyrics and bright harmonies, set the tone for a young generation of postwar adolescents struggling to find footing in the tumultuous social structure of the late ’60s.
In contrast to Pet Sounds’ angsty illustration of an evolving viewpoint, Wilson, it seems, has found peace. A youth lived in the public eye, followed by a decades-long struggle with drug use, mental illness, and over-medication, has left Wilson a different man than the one whose masterwork of record production has inspired musicians for three generations. In a recent interview with The Santa Barbara Independent, Wilson, now in his seventies, spoke contentedly of a career that continues to delight listeners old and young. A man of few words, Wilson has straightforward impressions of his body of work: He calls the 50th Anniversary Pet Sounds Tour a joyful experience for all involved, because “… we love the album and we like to make people happy.”
Pet Sounds was a unique musical endeavor for the time. Recorded with classically trained studio musicians known as The Wrecking Crew, the album is seen as a triumph of studio production. The Wrecking Crew also played with Phil Spector, one of Wilson’s prominent musical influences. Wilson also names Little Richard, The Four Freshmen, and Rosemary Clooney as musical inspirations, though when I asked if he likes the sound of any contemporary artists, his response was a succinct “no.”
Despite a strained, chemically altered mind, Wilson has made a career out of creating pop music. After producing the Pet Sounds masterwork by age 23, and a mid-life hiatus from recording, Wilson returned his energy to his musical narrative in the last 15 years. And while his latest album, No Pier Pressure (2015), features the recognizable Wilson sound, he admits that the recording process has changed. “We took a lot longer time to record the No Pier Pressure album,” Wilson said. “Pet Sounds took about a month; No Pier Pressure took a year. So we’re slowing down a little bit.”
Advanced age aside, his voice retains the recognizable intonation from the early Beach Boys records, even if the depth of consideration that one would expect from the architect of such a complex and layered sound is absent. Wilson, along with the remaining living Beach Boys, are no longer the long-haired youths on the Pet Sounds album cover, and this 50th Anniversary Tour is a particular type of musical experience. Wilson says the audience can expect the music to do what it always does: move and groove; but the Beach Boys experience five decades after the summer of love means most of that move and groove will be vocal. Yet for fans of the Pet Sounds album, Wilson is certainly an act to see before he’s no longer unable to tour.
I grew up listening to Pet Sounds, it being one of the flagship albums of my father’s collection. I related to the album through the filter of Dad’s nostalgia, but also through my own experience finding solid ground through the tremors of adolescence. At the intersection between accessibility and artistry, Pet Sounds offers an easy-listening experience with a layered intricacy that becomes more apparent with each successive listen. Wilson said that the melodies and the harmonies stick with people, and the lyrics are intimate and personal — but he never elaborates beyond an expression of gratitude for the ability to make his audience happy with his sound. “It’s always great to see that people like the music,” he said of the current tour, leaving his music, and the legacy of a great album, to speak for him.
411 Brian Wilson presents Pet Sounds on Sunday, May 28, 7 p.m., at the Santa Barbara Bowl (1122 N. Milpas St.). Call (805) 962-7411 or see sbbowl.com.