Some percussion (drums, temple blocks, bells), a cello, a twelve string guitar, an accordion, a flute, a clarinet, an electric bass guitar, an upright bass, a bass clarinet, a Hammond organ, a violin, a piano, a baritone saxophone, a French horn, and a viola. Twenty three musicians recording twenty takes, playing at the same time all twenty times—no separate recorded tracks. This is all you need in order to produce the greatest pop song ever made, should you ever think that you could do it yourself.
“[it] is one of the few songs that reduces me to tears every time I hear it. It’s really just a love song, but it’s brilliantly done. It shows the genius of Brian. I’ve actually performed it with him and I’m afraid to say that during the sound check I broke down. It was just too much to stand there singing this song that does my head in and to stand there singing it with Brian.” — Paul McCartney
“The string arrangement [...] is fact and proof of angels.” — Bono
“What can you say about it? I still think it’s one of his greatest pieces.” — Audree Wilson
Musically speaking, “God Only Knows” is the most beautiful pop song ever made. This is not up for debate. If you’re thinking to yourself anything along the lines of Well, let me think for a minute here—no, just stop. Stop. Pet Sounds is one of the most important and groundbreaking and beautiful and heartbreaking pop albums ever made and “God Only Knows” is the greatest and most beautiful song on this indescribably perfect album. So, no, there are no opportunities for you to mull over other songs that could possibly be greater and more beautiful, musically speaking, than this song. Sorry. I consider myself to be a pretty flexible person when it comes to the tastes of others but there is no movement on this point for me. If you listen to this song and you make a face like you’ve just eaten something sour or you don’t like this song at all for whatever reason I’ll just have to assume that you enjoy kicking puppies and making babies cry. Or that you admire Nixon.
“God Only Knows” is the opening track on side two of Pet Sounds, the aforementioned masterpiece by The Beach Boys. It is the B-side on the “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” single. It’s the only song on the album that Carl Wilson sings lead vocals on. It was one of the first singles to have the word God in the title. It was one of the first love songs to open up with an unorthodox lyric (“I may not always love you”). All of these things, examined individually or combined together, make for enough room to fill a couple thousand or so words but all of it is inconsequential when you simply listen to this song. The music of this song doesn’t simply exist—it levels you. Its quality exists on a plane that neither The Beatles nor Phil Spector reached.
Every song ever written or ever will be written is founded on movement, be it the melody that inspires you to move or in the most literal sense of linear movement that starts with the opening note and moves until the final note. What sets “God Only Knows” apart from every other pop song ever made is how fluid and normal the movement of the song is despite the fact that the music itself is actually very surreal. The music is simultaneously complex like the cosmos and enjoyable like a paint-by-numbers piece, and in between it has the ability to spawn diverse imagery. It’s fitting that the two most recognizable uses of this song by Hollywood in recent years have it anchoring and humanizing multifaceted character-driven stories about taboo things (the opening credits for Big Love, and the redemptive scenes towards the end of Boogie Nights). Though it’s a love song, the music is otherworldly and can be just as fitting when used for a montage centering around life’s and love’s triumphs as it can for an opening about navigating through a polygamous relationship.
The movement on “God Only Knows” is of a galloping and swaying nature. The galloping adjective is easy to start with because the temple blocks used in the song make it almost impossible not to think of something relating to the word equine. But the bass lines at the beginning of the song, before the temple blocks are introduced, have a soft slow galloping quality to them too. The song as a whole has a beautiful sway to it: the bells, recognizable but not a huge foreground presence, rock back and forth to perfect timing; the guitars are strummed effortlessly. Even when the song breaks and shifts into different drum beats it moves as naturally as someone walking up and down a flight of stairs. The accordion has never sounded more like a magical instrument than it does in this song.
I could very easily go on for several thousand more words about the perfection of this song. I haven’t even mentioned Carl Wilson’s vocals—honestly, can you name off the top of your head five other instances of singing that is at this level? I get goosebumps at the 2:00 mark when everything slows down and he sings before the foundational drum beats for the outro kick in. Again, I could go on.
But I’ll stop and just end with this.
If I had access to a time machine I would go back and correct some mistakes and regrets and kill Hitler when he was a teenager and all of those big historical things we’d all probably do if we had access to a time machine. But after all of the big things were taken care of the first thing I’d do is go to May 16, 1966 (who knows where—San Francisco maybe; it doesn’t matter though) and I would go to a record store and I would buy Pet Sounds on the day of its release and I would listen to side one and then I would flip over to side two and hear this song for the first time all over again and let everything that is beautiful and perfect and whimsical about it consume me.