God Only Knows
If you followed my TED coverage last week (or if you’ve talked to me since I’ve come back), you know that one of the great pleasures of the conference for me was the string quartet ETHEL: agile, imaginative, energetic, surprising. The afternoon after the event ended, I met Ralph Farris, ETHEL’s artistic director and viola player, in the lobby of my hotel and told him to his face how much I love his band. (Am I allowed to call a string quartet a band?)
After we got the fanboy stuff out of the way, Ralph and I talked for a bit about string quartets and rock’n’roll. Conversation bended toward The Juliet Letters, the 1993 collaboration between Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet. Then and now (I listened to the set again after it was reissued in 2006), I find The Juliet Letters arch and overly polite: in a word, precious. Each part of that union has done remarkable work (here are some notes I took on Costello a while back), but the project remains too self-consciously inoffensive to take off, despite some soaring moments here and there (more from the Brodskys than E.C.).
I do enjoy, however, some of the other songs the unlikely quintet played to fill out their shows, particularly a brittle take on Costello’s “Pills and Soap” and, especially, their version of The Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” On that classic, Costello’s singing is, more or less, as mannered as it was in general for that project, but it finds a place in the strings, gliding between the instruments, eventually soaring above them with one facile but still perfect “you” at the end.
On the flight back to Boston on Sunday, I listened to Pet Sounds, a record that has kept me good company on long trips before; it’s one of those albums that doesn’t seem to have a physical place so it feels apt when I’m in some container above the world, nowhere near anyone I love, not really anywhere at all. I was half-asleep from my last night at TED and half-surprised when “God Only Knows” appeared midway through the set. I’ve never been a member of the Beach-Boys-were-as-great-as-the-Beatles cult, but what a record Pet Sounds is, even after you have heard it 500 times. On songs like “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” lushly produced but still insular, and “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder),” whose strings carry it between a Phil Spector teenage symphony and an almost unbearable expression of yearning, it feels like you’re listening not to the sound someone made in a studio but the sound inside someone’s head. There’s enough humor and drama and unexpected reversals in the two-minute song “Pet Sounds” to fill a pretty good novel, and it doesn’t have any words, just feeling. Pet Sounds is all emotion on the edge of repression, just barely expressed and the more powerful for it. It’s masterful pop music. I bet it made Costello and the Brodskys feel grounded after their more abstract journeys.
Listening to Pet Sounds got me thinking about another version of “God Only Knows” that I treasure:
Petra Haden is, wrongly I think, sometimes considered as a purveyor of novelty: her best-known recordings are a capella recordings of classic pop songs, among them Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” all of The Who Sell Out, and “God Only Knows.” They’re formidable technical achievements and enjoyable to listen to regardless of whether you know that every sound is generated by a soulful human voice. We hear the original the way she heard it and we hear parts of the original that we didn’t hear until she brought them to our attention. Something new in a faithful version of an overplayed classic: that’s a gift. And, if you buy my argument that Pet Sounds is a record happening inside someone’s head, what could be more right than a precise, robust version of “God Only Knows” in which one inspired person overdubs herself over and over and over and over and … ? She makes us hear familiar songs in new ways; she makes us feel one of the most familiar pop songs of the ’60s in a new way.