I know so many people
Who think they can do it alone.
They isolate their heads
And stay in their safety zones.
Now what can you tell them?
And what can you say
That won't make them defensive?
I know there's an answer.
I know now
But I have to find it by myself.
They come on like they're peaceful
But inside they're so uptight.
They trip through their day
And waste all their thoughts at night.
Now how can I come on
And tell them the way
That they live could be better?
[Repeat 2nd B section]
With Pet Sounds, we have an entire album trying for "art rock", a category of music that didn't exist yet, and to my mind is only preceded by the songs Yesterday and In My Life by the Beatles. God Only Knows, a cut from Pet Sounds later released as a single, is also what would be recognized today as "art rock" as distinct from psychedelic music. Brian Wilson doesn't always succeed in making "art"; George Starostin in his blog Only Solitaire quipped: "Sure you can find bits of Bach, but for every little bit of Bach there's a big slice of "Bach-Arach", if you know what I mean, or maybe even Rodgers & Hammerstein", and I agree with him. But even Starostin notes that there are many non-formulaic constructions on the album. The use of orchestra and odd musical effects on eight track tape in Pet Sounds engendered some followers, among them Love's Arthur Lee, Van Dyke Parks, and some album tracks by Neil Young and Randy Newman; Los Angelinos all. At the time of Pet Sounds' release, there was no "art rock", so it was considered by the audience and the artist alike as psychedelic, indicative of the interior explorations that could be done on LSD to produce powerful music. Love, Buffalo Springfield, and Van Dyke Parks fell within that period; by the time of Randy Newman's recordings there was an "art rock" category, and the aesthetics of psychedelic music (though not the technical developments of that period) were starting to fall away from popular music.
This is also one of the first rock albums to be praised for its production. Though Brian Wilson himself attributes the source of Pet Sound's atmosphere to have been Phil Spector and his "Wall of Sound" technique, this was the first time I know of that a recording artist himself arranged for such a large variety of musical textures. (He had the help, of course, of a number of engineers, among them Larry Levin, who had worked with Phil Spector.) Sonically, the sound of the album is consistent and unique; Wilson is reported to have said of Pet Sounds: "It wasn't really a song concept album, or lyrically a concept album; it was really a production concept album." [Bob Harris: Rare Brian Wilson Interview 1976 (YouTube)] The album also marks the first time that multi-tracking was used to such an advantage; George Martin would begin to do similar multi-tracking experiments for the Beatles after Pet Sounds' release. The development of multi-tracking during the remaining years of the 60s by artists such as the Doors, Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the Grateful Dead would be one of the most important contributions of psychedelic music to later popular music.
The original title for I Know There's An Answer was Hang On To Your Ego. But the title's inclusion in the chorus was changed after concerns that the LSD-related connotations of the phrase "Hang On to Your Ego" would be too controversial. "I was aware that Brian [Wilson] was beginning to experiment with LSD and other psychedelics," explained [Mike] Love. "The prevailing drug jargon at the time had it that doses of LSD would shatter your ego, as if that were a positive thing... I wasn't interested in taking acid or getting rid of my ego." [Al] Jardine recalled that the decision to change the lyrics was ultimately Wilson's. "Brian was very concerned. He wanted to know what we thought about it. To be honest, I don't think we even knew what an ego was... Finally Brian decided, 'Forget it. I'm changing the lyrics. There's too much controversy.'" [Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys: The Complete Guide to Their Music by Andrew G. Doe and John Tobler, 2004, p.50]
Though the lyrics are an improvement over previous Beach Boy albums, Pet Sounds' poetry suffers by sounding a bit adolescent, still appealing mainly to teenagers. [Rubber Soul by the Beatles was contemporaneously trying to appeal to an older audience, in their twenties, the Beatles' own peers.] Brian seemed still to be singing to an audience in high school students or college freshmen. He expresses the belief (rather than the hope) that there is a truth to be found, and complains that no one else seems to be interested. Like many of the early LSD lyrics, the lyricist seems to feel his enlightenment on the drug has separated him and made him somehow more aware of a greater reality than the majority of straight folks around him. Thus the message is not too much different from George Harrison's cut from Sgt. Pepper called Within You and Without You, but without the religious depth or maturity.
Indeed the lyrics to I Know There's An Answer point to a state of mind, produced by LSD and adopted by many psychedelic artists afterward, that there is an answer to the problems of mankind. On LSD, it is a common experience to feel oneself as a small insignificant receptor to the immense grandeur of the universe; in such an altered state, you are certain that you have seen the way the world should be, and actually is, stripped of misperception and misunderstanding. While tripping, one has the conviction that the universe is full of love--it seems blatantly apparent that if only the ego and self-interest were surrendered that the world would live in peace. It all seems so simple and one feels a "child of God", flush with the freshness of perception. However, the particulars of that enlightenment escape one's memory as the effects of the drug wear off. One is left with only the desire to return to that blessed state. Though the order of the universe suggested by LSD has more in common with Hindu traditions, it shares with Christianity the trust that there is a divine order to the world. (More recent generations have perhaps lost that sense to "my mind on my money and my money on my mind", an alien concept to hippies.) The desire to reveal this divine order motivated several psychedelic works by the Beatles (Tomorrow Never Knows), the Beach Boys (Surf's Up), the Incredible String Band (A Very Cellular Song), and Donovan (The Land of Doesn't Have To Be), among others.
I'm aware that the lyrics to I Know There's An Answer are self-contradictory: early on, he condemns others for thinking they can "do it alone", and the chorus reflects that the poet is going to have to find the answer on his own. The poet ridicules their isolation, but he feels that he has been isolated. The poet criticizes them for "tripping though the day", meaning letting the day slip away, while he is [supposedly] "tripping" in the LSD sense through the day as well, but for enlightenment. Perhaps the most definitive difference between the poet and those he criticizes is that they waste all their thoughts, while in fact, the poet does not; he creates songs out of them.
Most of the real thinking in I Know There's An Answer is in a musical sense, where there's an A & B section, and a chorus. The break goes off into an improvisation between a bass harmonica and a banjo (the first bass harmonica solo in pop music, sounding rather like a kazoo) and the coda turns the melody into a fugue on harpsichord ghosted by Hammond organ with orchestra. "Bach-rock" they used to call it back in the day.