Well this is the moment when the Brian Wilson who has been endlessly celebrated by the music press truly emerges, at least in album form. Though the lyrical sophistication of these songs has been greatly exaggerated (to a degree I don’t think I can stress enough) the musical sophistication is leaps and bounds beyond most of what they were recording before (so much so that the actual band doesn’t play on the entirety of the record).
Wilson was already writing more sophisticated, Phil Spectoreseque songs before this record, but not consistently. Here even the upbeat numbers often have elements of the Wall of Sound approach – if it’s not provided by the actual Wrecking Crew, present on many tracks, it’s provided by the band’s vocals, which are as elaborate as ever. They are the main attraction, as they usually are, but they are often more complex than they were in the past.
The lyrics are definitely more sophisticated than the “Cars, Cars and Girls” of the past, but Wilson was already writing some lyrics that moved outside of these conventions. (I think “In My Room” from a year and a half earlier was the first, if memory serves.) But the grownup nature of the lyrics is relative only to how formulaic his lyrics were earlier. Sure, they’re an improvement, but it’s hard for me to see some kind of quantum leap here, since they are still about girls and dancing. (Though there is no mention of surfing or cars, far as I can tell. So that’s something.)
The real star is the arrangements, as I noted, with most of the songs using the Wall of Sound Approach (though not all) and that approach showing off Wilson’s growing musical ambition which, this early in 1965, is probably only comparable to Phil Spector and maybe Burt Bacharach in the pop world. There’s still a fair amount of traditional rock and roll stuff here, but it’s mostly blended well with the more ambitious musical ideas.
There are some songs that just aren’t classics, that just don’t hold up to the elaborate arrangements (band or vocal or both) which they are dressed in. I’d say that, for me personally, Wilson’s ambitions as an arranger are still ahead of his actual songwriting ability some of the time. Think about “Kiss Me, Baby” for example and then compare it to the songs which surround it, which are just far inferior in terms of their catchiness.
And when I compare this record to those by some of his contemporaries, I’m not sure it’s quite as good as its critical reputation alleges.