I guess I didn't really know why when I first heard of this release. It has been 16 years since we heard a concrete batch of new material from The Beach Boys, and Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 from 1996 was quite disastrous. If we look back even further, we can see that in 1988, a good 24 years ago, The Beach Boys had their last number 1 single. So was it a case of why, or was it a case of what the hell have they been doing for the last 20 years?
There are 2 categories of great bands from bygone eras. Well 3, one of them is brain-dead and a great deal from the 60s 70s and 80s who are still alive fall in to this category. A case can be convincingly made to pigeon hole Brian Wilson away in that category as well, but that is neither here nor there. The first is the scattered category. Past members are littered across the world, either working on solo ventures or wiling away the hours reading pottery magazines and knitting tea cosy's. Pink Floyd, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin. All bands that have not been an item for many many years. Then there are those that remain, stalwarts in the industry, legend status. The Rolling Stones, The Who, AC/DC. And now The Beach Boys return with a release that I guess we all hoped would be more Pet Sounds than Summer In Paradise.
So where do we stand? Production techniques have moved on extensively since Pet Sounds. The best example of this is the awful Summer In Paradise, a bleak footnote in the legend. On that a severe over-reliance on electronically created music was a monumental downfall. Thats Why God Made The Radio is heavy on computer assistance, but in a way that complements and enhances rather than overwhelms and directs. Yes, Brian Wilson utilises pitch corrective software to produce that flawless sound that he craves. This is not a bad thing. My argument: the voice is an instrument, just like a guitar or a drum kit or a triangle. To create new and diverse sounds and the sonically shape a record these instruments are fed through any number of electronic aids and synths. Why can the same not be done for the voice? Brian Wilson is one of the greatest song writers of all time, we're not talking about Katy Perry here. So as long as their live show holds up, I have no issue with auto-tune or whatever else being used to augment his ageing voice. I've drawn my line in the sand, now to move on with the record.
On first listen with my dad driving around our local town, I loved it and he did too. It is the smoothest record I've heard in years. The title track is a chilled 70s throwback, it doesn't feel strong at first but the more you listen the more it delights. Favourite lyric: It's paradise when I / lift up my antenna / Receiving your signal like a prayer / Like a prayer. Dad loved that one, don't know why! Isn't It Time is a catchy waltz of a song, 'isn't it time we danced the night away' actually prompts you to have a bit of a dance of remembrance of happier times. The Private Life Of Bill And Sue provides a 60s-inspired surf backing with at times absurd lyrics. Who are Bill and Sue? Who cares. It feels like a song they'd play in a Hawaiian mexican restaurant after the main act finishes for the night and everyone is starting to relax. The composition moves genially along as if mimicking a slow rolling tide, and when it does burst in to life, with excellent brass accompaniment and Wilson harmonising with himself, you're moved to close your eyes and drift along with it. It is an excellent song.
My favourite aspect of this record is the brilliant way in which Wilson has addressed the prolific and checkered life he has lived. On Beaches In Mind he disdainfully casts it aside, 'We've got beaches in mind / man it's been too much time'. It's been too much time is the extent of the explanation we get. Spring Vacation sounds mournful as a crying guitar complements a drum combination that has a quiet optimism within it. This explodes with the chorus, 'Spring vacation, Good vibrations, Summer weather, We're back together!'. Its genius! With a song writer as adept as Brian Wilson I'm sure there was a temptation to address the past 20 or so years, the pain and hardship he has suffered and the break ups and fights have ensued. I guarantee his life has not been carefree. The depths he has scaled to emerge back in to this hopeful glow he emanates can be appreciated without the need for him to explicitly state it. On Spring Vacation when he sings 'Looking ahead with anticipation / making each day a new celebration' you appreciate the positivity and strength of a man who I'm sure for a long period of his life was far from such an optimistic head space. He releases this hopeful lust that lulls you in to the sense of security, you're in his palm believing that life is ok, even at the age of 70 with tough experiences under your belt you're able to think positively about your future and actually look forward to it. You trust Wilson. Which is why the last 3 songs are a real sucker punch..
So we come to the final suite, From There To Back Again, Pacific Coast Highway and Summer's Gone. This trio of songs has apparently recieved widespread accalim for it's early era/Pet Sounds feels, and there is some truth to that belief. However it is this section of music that qualifies the rest of the record, that grounds it and instills a sense of reality and relatability in the album. From There To Back Again opens with a piano that dominates much of the next 5 minutes of music, and immediately takes you back to That's Not Me off Pet Sounds. The opener, From There To Back Again, sees Wilson more pensive than mournful, allowing the memories of a past life to influence his current situation. Rather than depressing him, letting lower moments bring him down, he strives to break free, 'The clouds are breaking, it's a beautiful day /For a wonderful, Pacific coast getaway'. We observe him as the end of the song he breaks in to harmony, whistling an upbeat riff, forcing himself to breath and bask. Pacific Coast Highway's harmony is darker, lower, 'My life, I'm better off alone'. Summer's Gone reinforces his loss, the grieving process as he becomes more and more aware that the happiest days of his life have passed. Summer's gone / Gone like yesterday / The nights grow cold / It's time to go. An acceptance of the inevitability of death? I think it's more an acceptance of the phenomenon of life itself, that time moves quickly, and he's all of a sudden woken up and found himself at the wrong end of the spectrum. Whatever the explanation it is an absolute genius piece of music. The contrast to the pop and happy beginnings of this album, juxtaposing carefree happiness with grounding reality helps you appreciate the fragile nature of a positive frame of mind. It can be scuppered in an instant, and the final feeling you're left with is a sense of disappointment. Not with the record, but with the message it delivers. This is the most grown up section of music I have listened to in my entire life. Who else but Brian Wilson, a man with more life experience than most of the worlds rock stars put together?
8/10. Excellent record!
Best tracks: Spring Vacation, Beaches In Mind, Pacific Coast Highway, Summer's Gone