While hardly a commercial failure-it hit Top Ten and spawned two Top Ten singles-it performed poorly by Beach Boy standards, failing to sell gold. Coming immediately after the carefree (and more popular) Beach Boys' Party, Pet Sounds was all the more confusing.
"God Only Knows" exemplifies Pet Sounds in its confessional tone and sensitive arrangement. Tony Asher wrote the lyrics, as he did for most of the album. Wilson was nervous about what he considered the unprecedented use of the word god in a pop song title. (Apart from quasi- patriotic kitsch like Johnny Burnette's 1961 hit "God, Country And My Baby", was Wilson unaware of a regional hit nearly as touching as his own, only a decade earlier- the Capris' "God Only Knows").
As on the rest of the album, none of the Beach Boys play instruments; Brother Carl Wilson's vocal is virtuostic. In the U.S., "God Only Knows" dented the Top 40 as the B-side of a bouncier Pet Sounds track, "Wouldn't It Be Nice". In England, "God Only Knows" reached Number Two in its own right. And Paul McCartney, whose own music had provided the impetus, declared it the best song ever written. How's that for poetic justice?