Anyone who’s been following this column for any length of time knows that I’m a Brian Wilson fanboy. But here’s something you may not know: I really don’t like the Beach Boys that much.
Oh, I think they’re a dazzlingly good vocal group, in all of their many incarnations. Mike Love may instill in me a desire to punch him in the face every time I see his picture, but the man can harmonize. And there’s no denying that with Pet Sounds, they made one of my favorite albums of all time. But other than that, the high points of their catalog are few and far between, and are almost entirely down to the genius of Brian Wilson, and Brian’s shown pretty clearly that he doesn’t need the Boys as much as they need him.
What it comes down to, for me, is a question of what, exactly, the Beach Boys are meant to be. They started out as a pretty simple surf-rock band, a fun little family group with the three Wilson brothers (Brian, Carl and Dennis) and their cousin, Love. Family friend Al Jardine rounded the group out, and the Wilsons’ father, Murry, became their manager. They wore matching outfits and sang about sun, summer, and of course, surfing. It was all pretty cute, and if Brian Wilson hadn’t been born brilliant, it may have remained just pretty cute.
But then Brian started writing his masterpieces. “In My Room” was first, as far as I’m concerned. You can trace everything I love about Wilson’s melancholy melodies right back to that tune. But then he just kept going. “I Get Around.” “Help Me Rhonda.” The whole second side of Today. While Mike Love was desperately trying to keep his surfin’ cash cow going, Brian Wilson was becoming an artist right before our eyes. Pet Sounds was a revelation, but not really a surprise by that point. Everyone who was paying attention at the time could no doubt tell that Wilson was something special, and he’d one day do something amazing.
But see, all the songs I like from the Beach Boys are not really Beach Boys songs. Love is right, in a way – they’re a good-time vocal group, they sing fun songs about riding the waves, and Wilson’s artistic ambitions never sat well alongside the likes of “Little Deuce Coupe.” It was that resistance to change that partially caused Wilson to abandon SMiLE, the finest work of his life, in 1967, and not return to it for more than 35 years. In a lot of ways, when Wilson assembled his current solo band, and finally revisited and completed SMiLE, it was his final show of independence from the Beach Boys.
As for the Boys, Dennis and Carl Wilson were gone, and Love was in charge of the group, leading them through terrible country versions of their hits (mainly penned by Brian) and playing fairgrounds and old-folks festivals. Meanwhile, Brian Wilson was selling out prestigious concert halls and receiving some of the best reviews of his life. Wilson’s subsequent That Lucky Old Sun proved this late-career surge was no lark, and that he was the artistic heart and soul of his former band. He was finally free of them.
So why in the world would he agree to a reunion tour with the surviving Beach Boys? And why would he make a new record with them? I’m not sure. I’m not even certain how much of these decisions are Brian’s, given his drug-damaged state of mind. I’ve heard so many mixed stories about Wilson’s detachment and delirium on stage with the Boys on this tour. Some days he’ll be right there, playing and singing the old hits, and some days, he’ll barely utter a note. Like I said, the Beach Boys need Brian Wilson much more than he needs them. I’m hoping this isn’t as manipulative and money-grubbing as it sounds.
But Brian has always shone in the studio, so that’s where I’m looking to figure out what I should make of this new Beach Boys. The new album – the first in 16 years, and the first with Wilson’s full participation since the ‘70s – is called That’s Why God Made the Radio. All of the surviving Boys are on it – Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks – but most of the music was performed by Wilson’s usual band, the Wondermints. (And they are amazing.) In a lot of ways, this should be just a Brian Wilson solo record with some different voices in the harmonies.
Instead, though, it’s a perfect distillation of that conflict between Mike Love and Brian Wilson, between what the Beach Boys were and what Wilson grew into. Roughly half of this record is glorious, sad, melodic pop of the highest order. The other half is bland tropical malarkey. As an album, it doesn’t cohere at all, and some of its worst sins are Wilson’s. It’s like he felt he needed to strike a balance, and write some songs Love wouldn’t criticize. Songs the Boys could sing while swaying, arm in arm, on the stage, septuagenarians singing along.
At least, that’s all I can imagine. I can’t figure out why else Wilson would write something like “The Private Life of Bill and Sue,” or “Beaches in Mind.” There’s a thematic resonance to some of it – the album is about nostalgia, about what the Beach Boys have meant to the world, and you’d need to include some songs about the ocean to make that work. Essentially, the first tracks are about looking back, and heading out for one last hurrah. And the songs from “Spring Vacation” to “Beaches in Mind,” I guess, are supposed to represent that final blowout.
To be honest, I feared it would all be like this. Reunions are patchy prospects even under the best of circumstances, and a “Look! Brian’s back!” tour doesn’t seem like the ideal situation. But Brian Wilson is still Brian Wilson, no matter how much he appears to have changed, and I should have had more faith. About half the songs on this record are unspeakably gorgeous, just vintage Wilson, and they nicely counterbalance the joyous nostalgia with an almost heartbreaking acceptance. Even the Beach Boys get old, and time leaves them behind.
The emotional core of the album is almost entirely contained in its final four songs, a suite of sorts about growing older and looking back with peaceful sadness. “Strange World” is a celebration of life’s twists and turns, sung while people-watching on the Santa Monica pier, its buoyant melody lifted by the Boys’ swirling voices.
But it’s “There and Back Again” that truly taps into a deeper well. Reminiscent of “Surf’s Up,” this winding piano epic feels like time slipping, like years melting away. It’s a plea to return to the way things used to be, for a “wonderful Pacific coast getaway,” but the next piece, the brief yet striking “Pacific Coast Highway,” finds Wilson alone again, naturally. “Driving down the Pacific coast on Highway One, the setting sun, goodbye,” he sings, leading into the heartrending “Summer’s Gone,” Brian’s farewell to the Beach Boys and the life he used to live.
Written years ago as a proposed final Beach Boys song, this is everything you could expect from the title and more. “Summer’s gone, it’s finally sinking in, one day begins, another ends, I live them all and back again…” Placing this song at the end of the album brings everything into focus. This is Brian’s goodbye to the band, and to the carefree life it represents. It’s the last Beach Boys album, and at its conclusion, the mature and wiser Brian Wilson comes to the fore, showing songs like “Beaches in Mind” for the nostalgic lies they are.
And for that, I love him even more. To use a high-profile reunion to gently let go of a dream many still hold, that’s brave and beautiful. Brian Wilson just turned 70 years old, and no matter what his state of mind on stage, there’s no one else who could have crafted the suite that ends this album. (Or the minute-and-a-half of blissful, wordless vocals that open it.) Yes, the Beach Boys need Brian more than they need him. But without the Boys, this work wouldn’t have as deep an impact. He needed them to say this.
All of which makes That’s Why God Made the Radio an essential part of Wilson’s creative rebirth over the past 10 years. The clunky numbers – and there are several – are easier to overlook in context. I expected I would buy this album out of obligation, play it once or twice, and shelve it with my latter-day Beach Boys discs. I did not expect a creative statement this powerful. Brian Wilson surprised me again.
What could have been a crass, money-grubbing throwaway is instead, more often than you’d expect, a moving goodbye to a time long gone. It is another chapter in Brian Wilson’s ongoing musical effort to be at peace with himself and his history. I hope one day he achieves that peace. Until then, I hope he keeps making music as glorious as the good stuff here. This is likely the final Beach Boys album, and I could not have asked for a better reminder of what they once were, or a better farewell to this chapter in the life of a genius I adore.
See you in line Tuesday morning.