God Only Knows may be the perfect song, but the end song of Pet Sounds may just trump it for me in terms of musical and emotional resonance. If pushed , I would oftenl come back to the song as possibly my favorite by any artist at any time. And that’s not just because it has trains on it. It is still a song that can bring me to tears, and remind one that for every shattered dream, every heartbreaking disappointment, there are still things of incredible beauty around. I remember getting goosebumps hearing Brian perform it in his 2006 Pet Sounds show at the Adelphi in London last November, especially hitting that last plaintive note at the end of this song.
Caroline No is on the surface a song about a woman who the singer loved who then changed her appearance and other things that the singer found less attractive. At this level, it’s a song that has annoyed at least a few women who will feel that they have the right to change and grow, and their men should move along. And this is a fair point, but one should also look at the song in the light of Brian’s life and the rest of Pet Sounds- here is a man looking for idealised love and acceptance by the world -just think about the emotion of God Only Knows and Wouldn’t It Be Nice- and suddenly the world around him changes and the women who was so beautiful and loving to him has changed, and he doesn’t know how to deal with it. And so Pet Sounds ends, with the singer shattered by the idealised love around him falling apart, reflected in percussive flurry around that last plaintive “Caroline No!”
Of course, there is deeper context here, which may have been conscious or unconscious, but is impossible to ignore given the history of Brian after Pet Sounds. Pet Sounds saw Brian’s own world start to change in a way that would eventually be very telling -for the first time, some of his own band questioned his musical path, and the record company didn’t show full support. We would soon see the ascension to the peak of Good Vibrations, the flame-out of SMiLE, and the gradual retreat thereafter. The train at the end seems to show a movement on to a different -and very uncertain place -and we’re not sure whether Brian wanted to go for the ride. Banana and Louie bark…and then the record ends.
In a way, Caroline No, that short plaintive song at the end of Pet Sounds may just be the pivotal song of Brian’s whole career (and in a strangely appropriate way also his first solo single). It is a song that I think many people (men and women) have lived and felt in their own lives. And it would certainly be one of the first songs I would be grabbing if I knew I was stranded on that mythical desert island.