Summer’s here and the time is right for listening to The Beach Boys again. Their first all-new studio album in 20 years, That’s Why God Made The Radio (Capitol) is a winner. On their last “new” album, 1996’s Stars & Stripes Volume #1, they re-recorded their old hits with country stars. You have to go back to 1992 for Summer In Paradise, their 27th album, for a valid newness. And that album was plain awful. Here, the majesty that permeated such great albums as Sunflower (1970), Surf’s Up (1971) and Holland (1973) is back in force. (Of course, nothing will ever touch their 1966 Pet Sounds masterpiece. That was the album that inspired the Beatles to make Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.)
On this 2012 beauty, it looks like group co-founder Brian Wilson has won the directional war against “The Evil Beach Boy,” Mike Love. The album is soothingly beautiful, arcane yet lyrically adventurous, overflowing with harmony and vibrantly alive. If Love had his way, they’d still be rewriting “Surfing USA” 49 years after it was a hit, which, itself, is a rewrite of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little 16” (a hit 54 years ago). Chuck sued them over it and now has a writing credit on it as a result. (There’s a great scene in the movie Cadillac Records where Chuck hears “Surfing USA” for the first time on the radio and shouts, “they stole my song!”) They sorta do it again on the title-track here by half-lifting the melody of “Silhouettes” by The Rays (1957). Still, “That’s Why God Made The Radio” is solid modern doo-wop, so sweet. Of course, it would be more accurate to say “that’s why Guglielmo Marconi Made The Radio” but it wouldn’t be as rhythmic.
The songs slide by in a summer haze so nice I try not to think about Bruce Johnston calling President Obama a “Socialist asshole.”
The uneasy truce between Brian and Mike has not only resulted in this gorgeous album but also in a stunning series of live shows.
It feels good to have ‘em back as a functioning unit. For far too long, The Beach Boys were a traveling feel-good oldies revival band with no soul while Brian bravely soldiered on in his own band that was better than his old mates.
To hear Brian sing “it’s a strange world but I’m getting through it” gives me the chills. No eccentric musical icon in history is more enigmatic or beloved than this pop genius. In a world that overuses the “genius” word, Brian is true to its meaning. Shunned by his band, label and management over his teenage Smile symphony, he retreated for decades into the dark recesses of his own mind. Even today, he only peaks out at the world from the safety of his own zone. As his recent solo excursions into Gershwin and Disney prove, it’s the music that still motivates his very existence.
“From There To Back Again” is one of the songs Brian must have fought for. Lyrically profound, devoid of the kind of sing-songy juvenile aesthetic that admittedly fuels their greatest work, it’s a loving reminder that this old soul moves along at his own pace and in his own world. If he’s peaking out at the world, this song lets us peak in (“my life: I’m better off alone”). And it’s followed up with the equally profound album-ender “Summer’s Gone,” which could be construed to mean that someday The Beach Boys will be gone. For those of us who are growing old, it’s a reminder that we’ll be gone too.
But not yet.