The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson has famously described his songs as “teenage symphonies to God,” but the tuneful melancholy of his 1966 album “Pet Sounds” is closer to a young-adult version of Sinatra’s classic “In the Wee Small Hours”: a collection of wishes, apologies, self-recriminations, prayers and pining ballads for lost innocence, set to some of the most gorgeous and sophisticated pop music ever written. Wilson, reprising a show done six years ago at the Hollywood Bowl, celebrated the album’s 40th anniversary in a bittersweet performance of the entire album bookended by two sets of Beach Boy favorites.
Singing the lyrics off a screen attached to his keyboard, his expression barely changed. His gestures were jerky, as if he wasn’t sure what to do with his hands; every now and then he would act out the lyrics, leaning his head into his hands for the line “when I laid in bed” or tapping his forehead as he sang “I heard voices in my head.” During “Good Vibrations” his hands traced the Theremin lines, his fingers wiggling in imitation of the instrument’s wavering tone. And there’s no escaping the poignancy hearing Wilson, who never really reached adulthood, singing his yearningly optimistic “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man).”
Nothing can diminish the prismatic beauty of “Pet Sounds,” which Capitol just reissued in a package that includes mono and stereo mixes and a DVD featuring a “making of” documentary and a conversation between Wilson and Beatles producer George Martin. But hearing Wilson perform the songs live only adds to their impact. Now, as then, the songs feel like a refuge for someone who has trouble negotiating the real world.
The set and the band make sure Wilson remains in his comfort zone. They lovingly re-create the album’s lush arrangements, filled with unexpected meter and key changes and often whimsical instrumentation (the bike horn and bell heard in the coda of “You Still Believe in Me,” the bass heartbeat of “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)).
Wilson inhabits the songs, although his delivery can be halting, like someone navigating a detour on a familiar route. His high tenor is not as supple as it once was, and his phrasing can turn labored, but his vocals are shadowed by guitarist Jeffrey Foskett.
The presence of Beach Boy Al Jardine, performing with Wilson for the first time in more than three decades, added to the evening’s sense of occasion. Jardine’s voice has held up surprisingly well and his perf of “Help Me, Rhonda” was a highlight. He also was responsible for one of the evening’s sweetest moments: During “Let’s Go Away for a While,” one of “Pet Sounds” two instrumentals, he walked over to Wilson and put his arm around him, patting him.
The continuing influence of Wilson’s music could be heard in the set of opening act Scritti Politti. Led by Green Gartside and best known Stateside for 1982 hit “The ‘Sweetest Girl,” the British band was charmingly nervous for only their third American perf. They opened and closed their set with vocal harmonies that would not have sounded out of place on Beach Boy albums such as “Smile,” “Wild Honey” or “Pet Sounds.” The songs feel like a cozy room on a cold day.
Wilson plays “Pet Sounds” Nov. 21-22 at New York’s Beacon Theater.