The albums of the 1960s.
The Beach Boys: Pet Sounds,
Van Morrison: Astral Weeks
These two introspective albums from the 1960s are the greatest pop albums I have ever heard. Astral Weeks, Van Morrison’s first solo long player, is otherworldly. Released in 1968, it defies all genres. Musically the album is built on endless wandering woodwinds and strings over repetitive chord changes and Morrison’s rhythm and blues influenced descending vocal lines. Each song has a unique affect, conveying a moment of intense emotional clarity. The songs, which run together in stream of consciousness fashion, depict a person’s personal emotional narrative. Maybe I formed these ideas through the bit of pretext I picked up years ago from some newspaper clipping I read that saying that the album is about the failing of counter culture in the 1960s. I was surprised how subtly the music and lyrics evoke innocence on side 1 of the album. In fact I am convinced the newspaper article’s interpretation of the album is merely speculation; the album is much more enigmatic. It is true that on the second side of the album, the singer seems much more knowing, wise. However, he is no less overwhelmed by his emotions. I don’t know how real the idea was that supposedly filled the heads of the youth of the 60s and that supposedly declined to some extent in the proceeding years.
The Beach Boys’ seminal album Pet Sounds, released in 1966, is another extremely personal album. The Beach Boy’s leader Brian Wilson’s control over every note, rhythm and timbre on the album is legendary. Because of Brian Wilson’s control over the final product of the album, in addition to the availability of innovative technology that allowed him to realize any sound he could dream of, Pet Sounds paints a portrait of its creator like no other album, full of his idiosyncrasies and musical humor. There is consistency and individuality that runs through each song.
The instrumentals on the album remind me of exotica records of Martin Denny, but they are enhanced with subtlety and grandeur by a young songwriter on par with George Gershwin. The music is meant to offer the listener a respite from the world. The comforting affect of the music on a non-verbal level is also reminiscent muzak or elevator music. The complex harmony on the album is inspired by 1940s jazz music, and yet the songs are firmly rooted in the simplicity of expression, honest self-examination and musical experimentation that were vital aspects of rock and roll in the 1960s. The emotional qualities are up front center in the music. Brian Wilson’s voice is amazing, perfectly shallow and bursting with emotion. And my concern is that the listener’s emotional response to the music declines with repeated listening. Since the music is operating on one plane, the emotional plane, it is hard to justify the greatness of Pet Sounds.
The general shape of both Astral Weeks and Pet Sounds are very similar. Both are personal albums whose songs form a tenuous narrative arc reminiscent of an art song cycle; a refreshing alternative to the concept album. They follow the development of one person, beginning with innocence and maturing to a nihilistic person. Both albums end with a song that laments the changing of a beautiful loved one. A sweet thing dying: not a sentiment that would have been celebrated by the record buyers of the late 60s, which might explain why these albums were not commercially successful at the time of their release. Regardless of how they were received when they first came out, these albums are timeless classics.