By 1966, Brian Wilson was pushing the rest of the Beach Boys into uncharted, experimental waters (spurred on by the Beatles’ own experimentation on Rubber Soul). Besides “Good Vibrations,” “God Only Knows” is the most complex piece of music the Beach Boys ever recorded. It has an unusual chord progression (along with a baroque staccato bridge) that’s masked in a musical tapestry that often sounds like one instrument instead of a unique combination of French horn, flute, harpsichord and strings. But it’s all held together by Wilson’s untroubled melody (sung, actually, by brother Carl). Though the Beach Boys were floating further and further away from their “Surfin U.S.A.” days by the time Pet Sounds was released, the weave of vocals in the middle and end of the song recall the simpler doo-wop tunes of their earlier years.
“God Only Knows” was one of the first pop songs to mention God so prominently, something the group was concerned about because they thought the song would be considered overtly religious and get less airplay. (Wilson also reportedly hated the first line, “I may not always love you.”) But in the end, none of that mattered. “God Only Knows” is an absolute masterpiece and one of the defining love songs of the 1960s.
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