THE BEACH BOYS: THAT'S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO (2012)
1) Think About The Days; 2) That's Why God Made The Radio; 3) Isn't It Time; 4) Spring Vacation; 5) The Private Life Of Bill And Sue; 6) Shelter; 7) Daybreak Over The Ocean; 8) Beaches In Mind; 9) Strange World; 10) From There To Back Again; 11) Pacific Coast Highway; 12) Summer's Gone.
I do not know why this album was made. I do know that the word «money» explicitly showed up in some of Brian's interviews, and, although I am not sure that Brian was exactly starving in the early 2010s, he is one of the few people in the world who actually deserves all the money he can get, so that would be one reasonable reason. Another reasonable reason would be the fact that the «band» was still in need of a bona fide swan song, after all: with Mike trampling the Beach Boys brand in the dust throughout the 1990s, the biographic curve had a maddeningly pathetic form.
Thus, once Brian and Mike temporarily settled their problems and got all the remaining Beach Boys they could lay their hands on together (Al, Bruce, and somebody even dug up «oldboy» David Marks to strum the guitar; 1962 all over again!), they wisely agreed on the following work pattern: the album would be mostly sunny, happy, and nostalgic, just the way Mike would like it to be, but Brian would otherwise be given complete freedom in the writing, throwing in teenage-symphonic compositions à la ʽSurf's Upʼ if he will. Considering that Brian's solo activity in the 2000s showed him as almost completely «cured», busier with his musical projects than anytime since the 1960s, this pattern simply could not fail. Or could it?
The critical world invented a brilliantly polite tag for the final product: «their best since 1977's Love You». Given that very few people would even remember Love You itself, much less anything that came later, the tag sounds impressive — wow, thirty-five years past their last artistic success and still going strong! But take the time to relisten to all these albums: honestly, beating all of them put together in one punch is no feat of heroism. The question should be put differently: have The Beach Grandpappies actually managed, this time, to put out an album that would make sense to people outside the small circle of hardcore fanatics?
As one select representative of these people, I'd very much like to say yes, but the more I listen to it, the more I'm forced to say no. That's Why God Made The Radio is by no means an «awful» album in the spirit of the Brianless garbage of the 1990s, and it manages — most of the time — to avoid being «cheesy» in the spirit of the band's late 1970s / early 1980s products. But it is an empty shell of an album, Beach Boys-ish to the core in form only, never in spirit. In fact, I'd say that it doesn't even have any spirit, Beach Boys or otherwise.
In comparison, I try to remember how amazed I was at hearing Paul McCartney's Chaos And Creation several years ago. There it was, a record by an aged, out-of-time dinosaur that made crystal clear sense: slow, pensive, atmospheric, still carrying traces of melodic genius but also reflecting a shift of values, moods, attitudes so totally in line with both the modern world and the artist's own age. Not a proverbial «masterpiece», not anything to be remembered by on an order of first importance, just an album that quietly stated, «yes, my creator is old and gray, and that gives him a special edge that he is willing to take advantage of». Similar impressions can also be received from some (far from all) of Brian's solo work — even the re-recording of SMiLE, one could say, carried some whiffs of this «wisened old man» attitude.
That's Why God Made The Radio has none of that. It sounds as if the only question the band put to itself was, «can we just make one more ʽDo It Againʼ type of album?» (As a promo move, they did re-record ʽDo It Againʼ, but it is not included on the final LP). To be more precise, «can we still work out those harmonies? can we avoid synthesizers and electronic dance beats? can we still come up with credible lyrics on Californian topics?» etc. And — yes, for dessert: "can we still make a proverbially beautiful multi-part epic suite like we did in the old days, when Mike didn't like epic suites and we still didn't give a damn?»
The title track, released as a taster several months prior to the complete thing, epitomizes its essence quite faithfully. After a few listens... maybe even after a single listen, you can memorize the chorus and forgetfully toe-tap along with its lazy, shuffly rhythms. But from the first to the last note, it feels utterly fake. Or, perhaps, «fake» is not the right word — what is truly awful is that it might feel like a sincere outburst of emotion to Brian himself. Can you imagine the Beatles, had they all remained alive, finally reuniting... with every single Paul song written in the spirit of ʽP.S. I Love Youʼ and every John song written in the spirit of ʽLittle Childʼ?
At least if there had been new tricks, new solutions, new discoveries. No dice. Every single chord, every single harmony seems to have a direct ancestor in one Beach Boys classic or another. Sometimes in several at once: ʽShelterʼ is the most glaring example, where the chorus ("I'll give you shelter from the storm...") is the offspring of ʽDon't Worry Babyʼ while the backing harmonies are mostly variations on ʽBreak Awayʼ. I do not doubt for a second that Brian is still capable of inventing new textures, but for this album — it's like he didn't even try. Instead, he reprogrammed his brain computer-wise, activated all the old melodies, shuffled them around, and gave out a credible «Beach Boys™» record. Give musicologists, biologists, and programmers another fifty years, and you might not even need a Brian Wilson to receive another album of this caliber.
We cannot even blame Mike Love this time. For the most part, he wisely stays away from the writing process, although you can always be sure that if you encounter a particularly cringeworthy lyric, you know who to blame. "Singing our songs is enough reason / Harmony boys is what we believe in" from ʽSpring Vacationʼ (the most overtly awful song on the entire album — few things in life are more disgusting than forcefully faking happiness) is bad enough, but "we got beaches in mind, man it's been too much time" is a close contender (unless you start singing "we got bitches in mind", which immediately gives the whole thing a fresh new angle). He is also responsible for ʽDaybreak Over The Oceanʼ, which seems to be a crude vivisection of ʽBluebirds Over The Mountainʼ with a transplant from ʽMy Bonnieʼ or something else like that.
Most of the rest is honestly credited to Brian and producer Joe Thomas, who had been a close associate of Brian's since the recording of Imagination more than a decade earlier. And from all of this «rest», critical attention, for obvious reasons, has preferred to focus on the last three songs, which finally dispense with all the phoney summer happiness and give us pianos, flutes, strings, kind melancholia, and solemn vibrations. Does this make me happy? No. I don't like the idea of Brian sitting down at the piano and telling himself, «okay, concentrate, focus, God, make me capable of writing another ʽSurf's Upʼ here and now» — and for all of these nine minutes, I cannot get rid of the idea. And again, all I hear is faint echoes and shadows of past greatness.
To sum up, if this is really why God made the radio, it's totally awesome how God made me stay away from the radio for most of my life. If this album really replenished Brian's, or even Mike's, pockets in a time of need, I am fine with that. If it was made just so that the official Beach Boys discography did not end with Stars And Stripes, I am so totally fine with that, too. But in the general context of the Beach Boys history, this is not a good record, I'm afraid to say. In fact, it is a bad record, I'm afraid to say — a nostalgic trip that feels forced and stuffy, as if you've just successfully taken a time machine back to 1967, but cannot open the doors. In fact, I'm not even sure I really agree that «this is their best since Love You»: even L.A., in those parts of it that weren't totally wretched, sounded more natural.
The only reason I'm chickening out on giving it a thumbs down is that such a decision would look like some sort of «gesture» — as if I wanted to «punish» the band for committing some sort of sacrilege, or was intentionally going «against the grain» (since most of the official reviews were uniformly positive). After all, they are all just big (and, as of now, senile) children, and at least by now they have learned their lesson: don't pay too much attention to big wicked grown-ups coming at you with «modern musical values». Better some sheer, unadulterated nostalgia, than ʽSummer Of Loveʼ. And any nine-minute epic written and recorded by Brian Wilson will always respect the Beach Boys' textbook definition of beauty. The album sounds great — like an immaculately produced facsimile. It feels phoney. But sounds, as we know, are waves that penetrate us all in the same way, and feelings — who knows, yours might be better than mine.
P.S. And I'd like also to explicitly mention that I do not buy the «well, what more would you expect from these guys in 2012?» argument at all. One of the «real» Beach Boys' biggest advantages in the past was the ability to surprise — after the failure of Smiley Smile, they could come up with a winner like Wild Honey, and after the glitzy cheese of 15 Big Ones they could rebound with the raw bizarredom of Love You. Like I said, I could totally see Brian taking charge and leading the band in yet another direction. Instead, they gave us this fucking paper house. Nosiree, we had the rightful right to expect more, and got much less.
Check "That's Why God Made The Radio" (MP3) on Amazon