The story goes that during an exclusive, and probably highly grooving, listening party of the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds during the mid 60s in England, Sir Paul McCartney instantly proclaimed that, “God Only Knows,” was “the greatest song ever written” after it finished playing to a completely silent crowd that was stunned by awe. I bring up this anecdote because my initial experiences with this song were the complete opposite.
Now, I can’t quite remember the first time I listened to “God Only Knows.” However, it is very clear in my mind that I came across this number while I was a middle school student, during a stage in my life when my musical interests were narrowly focused on all things metal \m/ (though I was probably only ankle deep compared to genuine metal-heads). If a song wasn’t dark, heavy, aggressive, riff driven, head-bangable, or all of the above, then it wasn’t a song. Within this specific criterion of what constituted as “music,” there was no way I could agree with Paul McCartney, despite his accomplished musical resume, which, by the way, was also in question by the middle school me.
But thank goodness Brian Wilson, and his opus, Pet Sounds, reached that degree of legendary status, which makes them both virtually unavoidable for music fans. I eventually came back around to listening through the album, with “God Only Knows” on repeat, in the first few weeks of my second semester as a freshman in college. Sequestered in a small college campus during the dead of winter in upstate New York, I felt a grave sense of loneliness (in retrospect, things weren’t so bad), which led me to doubt all my decisions up to that point in my life and my ability to make good choices in the future. In fact, I felt so lonely and uncertain about everything that while the majority of my classmates in an English class were openly protesting about the boredom and tediousness of reading Robinson Crusoe, I remained silent as I was ashamed to admit how fascinated I was with the novel because I felt Crusoe’s experiences on the stranded island were so relatable. Yes, I believed being in college was like being isolated from human society on an unknown island with no companions, only to later find that other forms of life are cannibals and eventually escape the island just to be attacked by famished wolves. Needless to say, the uncertainties of becoming an adult were hitting me like a ton of bricks.
However, amidst the few weeks of this freshman year crisis, “God Only Knows” gave me hope and kept me afloat. Thinking back on the experience, it seems strange to me that the song was able to provide me comfort. Undeniably, the melody is gorgeous. However, there’s a much darker line of thought underneath its veneer as a love song. Indeed, the speaker responds to the possibility of loneliness by asking the question, “What good would living do me?” in the second verse. Furthermore, the speaker of “God Only Knows” is really as unsure of everything as I was at the time. Indeed, speaking to to his/her beloved, the narrator immediately states in the first line, “I may not always love you.” What a great way to start a love song.
This sense of uncertainty is further expressed through the song’s musical ambiguity. For a pop tune that doesn’t even hit the three-minute mark, the song moves into a lot of parts that contrast greatly from each another. A prime example is the unison staccato bridge that comes right after the first chorus, which is led by a legato melody line. Additionally, the song’s multiple key changes and its varied and idiosyncratic instrumentation, particularly for a “pop” song (e.g. French horn, baritone, no guitar), keep the listener on his/her toes. The sequence of the track’s various parts always sounds slightly beyond what’s intuitively expected, which generates a sense of variability and an undercurrent of tension within the tune.
So how could a song, that seemingly affirmed all my fears and insecurities, have comforted me? I think it’s because rather than brooding over the invariabilities of a relationship and life at large, there is a sense that the song celebrates its presence (e.g. grand French horn led intro, Christmas-y sleigh bells). Unpredictability and change makes for a more interesting song—and life. Also, I’m pretty sure it also helped that “God Only Knows” was and still is one of the greatest songs ever written.