On the (Unlikely) Return of the Beach Boys

posted by Tom on June 07, 2012 at 4:50 pm
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Every rock-era resurrection follows a similar script. The return of an iconic artist or band is attended by serious, deeply entrenched, sometimes insurmountable audience expectations – in a way, a returning act’s “success” depends on its understanding of what listeners loved, and long to love again. The nostalgia buy-in happens before anybody hits the play button; the trick, for a creative type, is to offer new work that activates those memories without appearing to pander to them.

The Beach Boys would seem to be well suited to this task – primary songwriter Brian Wilson has become a kind of professional rememberer, combining and reshuffling images of beaches, cars and summertime into pleasant songs that evoke even more graceful pleasant songs from his group’s heyday. Sure, it’s been a long time since anybody in the group caught waves on a surfboard. But they remember the rush of summer, oh yes they do, and they will trade on those memories as far as the market will allow. The subject matter is almost pathetically, mawkishly sentimental – variations on the theme of “do you remember that golden time, you know, when life was easy and we mattered?” – and somehow that doesn’t really diminish the pleasures of this astonishingly well executed and at times disarmingly beautiful record.

The first new work from the Beach Boys in 16 years, That’s Why God Made the Radio  (playlist here, that's why God made Spotify) offers everything a fan could want from this reconstituted band wrapped up in a gleaming 1964 Chevy with fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror. These loving backward glances rely on slightly less orchestration than the Pet Sounds/Smile material critics regard as sacred texts, but they’re tastefully rendered and uniformly plush – they only tip into bombast once or twice. Initial reviews have been dutifully breathless about the vocal harmonies, as though it’s some sort of miracle that these guys can still create that creamsicle blend. Of course they can! That’s the mealticket! And besides, the tunes demand it. And on several tracks, particularly “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Isn’t It Time,” even the cynic who can’t stomach one more sock hopping Southern California myth will find himself awestruck by the grandeur of the vocal array, aligned perfectly like the plumage of an exotic bird.

When you stop to think about everything Wilson and crew have endured over the decades, the arrival of new Beach Boys music, even creepily wistful Beach Boys music, is a kind of miracle. To fully immerse in the positive aspects of this, skip over the title track (a blatant echo of previous Wilson gems) and go straight to the closing nine-minute “suite,” which encompasses a lovely instrumental and several short songs. The last one, “Summer’s Gone,” is the most nuanced offering on the album – its lyrics express a sober, down-to-earth realism missing elsewhere, and its understated melody approaches the majestic sweep of Wilson’s hits without sounding like a total rewrite. It’s a delightful, pretention-free sliver of pop greatness, pure and simple.

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