The nice thing about all these deluxe reissues and box sets coming out is that fans get new music from their favorite acts, or at least new versions of old classics. These re-releases also give us fascinating insight into how the music got recorded in the first place. I like hearing alternate versions–at least as long as they sound significantly different from the originals–or demos. It’s the creative process in action.
In 2006, Capitol Records released a 40th Anniversary edition of the Beach Boys’ masterpiece Pet Sounds. Brian Wilson was at his absolute peak as a songwriter and artist, and the rest of the band never sounded better. It is still a stunningly good album. It also contains my favorite Beach Boys song: “God Only Knows.” It’s a lovely, ethereal, almost elegiac song. A love that seems both eternal and fleeting, a vow to stay true even if the love dies. It’s a virtually perfect song, from the organ-bass line and Carl Wilson’s angelic voice to the sleigh bells jingling in the background and the sweet harmony of the backing vocals. There didn’t seem to be any way to improve on this little 2 minute and 51 second slice of heaven. But the anniversary set featured this wonderous revelation.
The track is listed as the “Stack-O-Vocals” version, and that’s a pretty apt description. You can hear how the lead and backing vocals build and climb over each other, how entwined the voices sound. The fact that it’s virtually a capella only adds to the power of the words (you can hear the music track faintly, but not enough to make much difference). This album was Brian Wilson’s last creative gasp before he began descending into a decades long mental and emotional breakdown; his sanity is hanging on by a thread throughout Pet Sounds, and you can hear it unraveling. This plea to a lover, this one simple declaration, “God only knows what I’d be without you,” seems to be uttered with perfect awareness. He knows where he’d be without his love; he’s already heading there. Sure, Carl was the singer, but he was probably well aware of what was happening with his brother. It’s one of the sweetest, most heartbreaking moments I’ve ever heard.