THE BEACH BOYS: SUNFLOWER (1970)
1) Slip On Through; 2) This Whole World; 3) Add Some Music To Your Day; 4) Got To Know The Woman; 5) Deirdre; 6) It's About Time; 7) Tears In The Morning; 8) All I Wanna Do; 9) Forever; 10) Our Sweet Love; 11) At My Window; 12) Cool, Cool Water.
Well, now we know who was the de-facto leader of the Beach Boys circa late '69 / early '70 — brother Dennis! It is his song, and a typically his song, that opens the album; and altogether, he gets four of them, a feat never to be repeated. That is almost as much as Brian contributes to this record (in fact, exactly as much if we exclude Brian's material left over from older sessions). In between the two of them, the brothers dominate Sunflower, making it a somewhat less collective effort than the overtly democratic 20/20; and that actually helped with the critics, who (justifiedly) saw this as an attempt to return to the naïvely romantic, but still profound art-pop of the old days. It didn't help with the public, though. Even the singles mostly bombed.
Why didn't the population at large like Sunflower? Answering that question could be a culturologist's wet dream. Not being one, I could still risk suggesting that, by the end of the Sixties, the one big pop market, having become way too large for the people to assimilate in one go, had already begun splintering into multiple small ones — and the Beach Boys simply fell through the cracks. Although Brian was still not well, and the rest of the band had their multiple problems, too, 20/20 at least sounded like the band had finally remembered how to put out records (because, let's admit it, Smiley Smile was a joke; Wild Honey was way too rough-hewn; and Friends was way too minimalistic), and Sunflower solidified a «formal return to form». All of its twelve tracks are songs — including even those whose length does not exceed two minutes — and all of the songs are taken good care of — including even the bad ones, of which, fortunately, there are few. So what happened?..
Actually, what may have happened is that Sunflower avoided genre definition. It is an odd melange of influences both old (some of it sounds very Sixties) and new (some of it sounds very Seventies), but it does not have any sort of central running theme that would hit a loose nerve in the common listener around 1970. These days, such things are normal — and that is why, with time, people learned to appreciate Sunflower more than they used to — but in the age of the concept album, armadillo tank and all, I can sort of understand why record-buying people would be shunning Sunflower. As a «rock» album, it was nothing next to Led Zep, and as a «pop» album, it was far too disjointed and subtle next to the concentrated charm of Karen Carpenter.
But, as it happens, it just contains lots of good songs. Dennis' trademark style is all over 'Slip On Through' — which just bursts in without knocking, a simple, bawdy, rough melody, a slightly off-kilter rhythm, vocal harmonies that seem to come from an entirely different song, brass backing that seems to come from still another song, a climactic chorus, and it's all over before you can actually put a tag on it. He also submits a fairly creepy «dark rocker» ('It's About Time'), which is about as close as the Beach Boys ever got around to being «apocalyptic»; unfortunately, his other rock'n'roll number ('Got To Know The Woman'), written in a cocky vein, is all but incompatible with Beach Boys aesthetics, and sounds out of place here (I'd rather listen to Alex Harvey if I wanted that particular kind of sound). Yet this small blunder is easily forgiven for 'Forever', his most anthemic song so far — and, arguably, containing his sweetest vocal delivery on any record (by the time Pacific Ocean Blue came along, his voice was already way too alcohol-shot to successfully muster sweetness).
At the same time, there is some serious revitalization on Brian's part. 'This Whole World' is lively, loud, and optimistic; no one could easily imagine that the man to write it would be spending most of his days as a lost recluse. 'All I Wanna Do' is not just tender, but a bit otherworldly: apparently, they are experimenting with voice effects there, because the modernistic psycho-wobbling makes it impossible to discern who is taking the lead vocal (Mike?). The lead single 'Add Some Music To Your Day' is, indeed, the most «commercial» song on the album, and a far cry from the complexities of 'Good Vibrations' or even 'Break Away', but as a nice, harmless little pop song whose only purpose is to ask you to add some music to your day, it works. (Although, chances are that if you are listening to it in the first place, you already have added some music to your day. Whether it may actually make a real music hater change his mind is something that no one probably has tested yet. Hey there, music haters round the world, this one's for you!).
Continuing the trend of saving the best-from-the-past for last, Sunflower says goodbye to you with 'Cool Cool Water', another five-minute suite rescued from the rubble of Smile and brought to relative completion, with Mike Love adding new «comprehensible» lyrics that actually fit the suite's «watery» mood — it does flow on smoothly, gently rocking the listener on its waves of never-faltering harmonies, quite different from the violent Sturm-und-Drang of some of the other tracks on Smile. Really beautiful, «becalming» stuff.
All in all, despite a few blunders here and there — chief among them Bruce Johnston's two originals, which sound positively lame and out-of-style next to everything else; at least 'Deirdre' could pass for cuddly Harry Nilsson-ian fun, but the attempt at pain-in-my-heart blue-eyed soul ('Tears In The Morning') is a blatantly corny fake — anyway, despite a few blunders, Sunflower is yet another of these fabulously strong late-period albums: formerly overlooked by the masses, today given its due by the cool minorities among the masses. Even if, «brain-wise», it could have been done «smarter» to pass the acceptance threshold in 1970, «heart-wise», it is one of Brian and Dennis' finest hours. Thumbs up.
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