Maybe it’s just me, but there’s a very strong connection between depression and being in love. Maybe it’s my past experiences with both, but I really don’t think I’m alone and the proof of this connection is rampant in all forms of poetry, art, and music. To me, the shining example of this has to be “God Only Knows” by The Beach Boys. It’s a perfect song for countless reasons, but I’ll go over a few.
The realization that nothing is forever, even while professing eternal love is one hell of a complex idea to put in a song, but there it is in the opening line. “I may not always love you,” while a cosmic orchestra plays perfect music that seems to be playing inside a room made of pillows and heartache just forces you to sigh. And that’s just the beginning. The music seems to be building to some kind of something. Is it an embrace or a rejection? What a relief when we hear that first “God only know what I’d be without you” of the chorus. But the melancholy remains, because what is love, after all, if not just a small and necessary way to distract ourselves from our ever impending mortality; a theme touched on in one my other favorite love songs of all time, Bjork’s “Hyperballad.”
The music for “God Only Knows” was written by Brian Wilson with lyrics by Brian Asher, but knowing that Wilson suffered from depression among other mental health issues, it’s impossible to think of this song as not being entirely his (not to discredit to Asher in any way). It’s the perfect marriage of lyric and music. There’s uncertainty in every chord until the chorus, which comes across as a revelation to us and hopefully the character singing the song, because it’s clearly more about finding something to live for than it is about a declaration to a beloved. And still…
The song just can’t shake the dark side of this love, though. “If you should ever leave me / though life would still go on, believe me / the world could show nothing to me / so what good would living do me?” If these lyrics, particularly when heard in the context of the entire song, with the plaintive voice of Carl Wilson and the support of the rest of the Beach Boys, like a harmonizing choir of inner voices, don’t at the very least give you chills, then you need to reevaluate your life. This is perfection.
Interestingly enough, just after writing this, the internets have gone gaga over a clip from BBC Music where they assembled a who’s who of rock stars to sing this song with a full orchestra, including Brian Wilson himself. Among the notable stars I could identify were Pharrell, Lorde, Dave Grohl, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Chrissie Hynde to name just a few. It’s a great clip and I hate to go all grumpy poopoo on it, but I think it rings kind of hollow. I get it – it’s just an ad and the song is certainly worthy of being a standard, no doubt. But to me, the clip is too joyous and that’s not what makes the song great. A few of the artists in the clip would likely be able to plum the angst, given the opportunity (I’m thinking Lorde, mainly), but not all. I’m not sure any cover of this song would ever work for me, and I’m normally a guy that loves covers. Sometimes, you just can’t mess with perfection.