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With Pet Sounds, Wilson desired to make "a complete statement", similar to what he believed the Beatles had done with their newest album Rubber Soul, released in December 1965. The version of the album that he heard was the alternate American edition, whose track listing had been configured by Capitol to have a cohesive folk rock sound. Wilson was impressed that the album appeared to lack filler, a feature that was mostly unheard of at a time when more attention was afforded to 45 rpm singles than to full-length LPs. Most albums up until the mid-1960s were largely used to sell singles at a higher price point.[nb 8] Wilson found that Rubber Soul subverted this by having a wholly consistent thread of music.[nb 9] Inspired, he rushed to his wife and proclaimed, "Marilyn, I'm gonna make the greatest album! The greatest rock album ever made!"
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Wilson tended to write vertically, in block chords, rather than in the horizontal manner of classical composition. An overwhelming majority of the chords are slashed, diminished, major seventh, sixths, ninths, augmented, or suspended.[nb 19] Simple (major or minor triad) chords are invoked minimally.[nb 20] The bass lines were written melodically and tend to play parts that avoid focusing on tonic notes. According to Lambert, one of the album's few recurring compositional features that did not reflect a recent trend in Wilson's songwriting were bass lines that descend from 1 to 5.[nb 21]
"I Just Wasn't Made for These Times" features lyrics about feeling alienated by society. Brian said: "It's about a guy who was crying because he thought he was too advanced, and that he'd eventually have to leave people behind. All my friends thought I was crazy to do Pet Sounds." For the track, he employed harpsichord, tack piano, flutes, temple blocks, timpani, banjo, harmonica, Fender bass, and most unusually, an Electro-Theremin performed by the instrument's inventor Paul Tanner. According to Lambert, the strongest musical indication of Wilson's progressive vision for the album is heard in the cumulative vocal layering in the chorus, with each line sung by Wilson via overdubs.
For the album's promotion in the US, Capitol ran full-page advertisements in Billboard that did not distinguish the record from earlier Beach Boys offerings and relied on the group's familiar public image instead of rebranding. This was also true for the promotional spots that were recorded by the Beach Boys themselves and disseminated to radio stations. Like they had done for previous spots, the members performed a comedy skit without any indication of what the record they were promoting sounded like. Instead, they relied on their name recognition. Johnston blamed Capitol for the album's underwhelming sales and alleged that the label did not promote the album as heavily as previous releases. Carl shared this view and said that Capitol did not feel a need to promote the band since they were getting so much airplay. Others assumed that the label considered the album a risk, appealing more to an older demographic than the younger, female audience the Beach Boys built their commercial standing on.
Due to popular demand, EMI rush-released Pet Sounds on June 27. It peaked at number 2, and remained in the top-ten positions for six months. Taylor is widely recognized as having been instrumental in this success, due to his longstanding connections with the Beatles and other industry figures in the UK. The music press there carried advertisements saying that Pet Sounds was "The Most Progressive Pop Album Ever!" According to Wilson biographer Peter Ames Carlin, Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who was also the Beach Boys' publisher in England, took out a full-page advertisement in Melody Maker in which he lauded Pet Sounds as "the greatest album ever made". On July 22, "God Only Knows" (B-side "Wouldn't It Be Nice") was released as the third UK single, peaking at number 2.
After its release, several selections from Pet Sounds became staples for the group's live performances, including "Wouldn't It Be Nice", "Sloop John B" and "God Only Knows". Other songs were performed, albeit sporadically and infrequently through the years, and the album was never performed in its entirety with every original group member. In the late 1990s, Carl Wilson vetoed an offer for the Beach Boys to perform Pet Sounds in full for ten shows, reasoning that the studio arrangements were too complex for the stage, and that Brian could not possibly sing his original parts.