Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: 20/20 (1969)
You can call it "varied" or "eclectic" all you want, but the truth (acknowledged by no less a figure than Dennis Wilson) is that 20/20 is an utter failure as an album, clearly constructed as a scrambling afterthought. As a collection of songs, the kind of hodgepodges bands release to fulfill dumb contract obligations (Flowers, Magic Bus, Magical Mystery Tour), it's unusually good. Individually, the songs here are mostly excellent. In all other departments -- sequencing, artwork, cohesion, impact -- it falls flat. But it's important to consider that it really was a compilation, and the songs have found homes elsewhere that are probably more appropriate, maybe on a mix CD you've made, maybe in a live performance ("All I Want to Do"), maybe on Smile, maybe as singles or on compilations. It's still an LP full of excellent Beach Boys material, and in that regard it's nothing short of essential.
Ironically, this record that comes from supposedly the most uncommercial phase of the Beach Boys' career, when it's been said they were deliberately making bad music and riding out their Capitol contract, contains not one or two or three but four singles. It's also telling that three of them are covers and one of them, the stellar "Do it Again," is from a year before this album was released. Before I go on, you may as well accept the unnatural divisions that emerge here. Four of the tracks are singles, four are Brian's, and four are compositions from other band members. Of the singles, "I Can Hear Music" is the standout, a beautiful Carl-produced cover of a lovely Ronettes obscurity. the unusually guitar-driven "Bluebirds Over the Mountain" seems a bit anachronistic, and "Cotton Fields" is shoddily produced and dull but inescapably likable. The novelty of the Beach Boys covering Leadbelly carries it more than you'd expect.
After emerging as a composer of considerable note on the prior album, Dennis Wilson here suddenly blossoms, in at least one case: the sublime, orchestral yearning of "Be with Me," more elaborate than anything recorded by the band since before Smiley Smile. It's potent and chilling, and so is "Never Learn Not to Love," for different reasons entirely -- which brings us to the dark side of 20/20, which is that a serial killer assisted in the creation of it. "Never Learn" is the infamous Manson song, his "Cease to Exist" rewritten with the actually somewhat creepier words "cease to resist." By some accounts Manson didn't want credit, he was too free or something for all that -- though it's also been speculated that Dennis considered Manson's theft of numerous valuables from his house as adequate payment -- but he got pissed and made Dennis one of many targets when he found out the lyrics had been modified. He also added some words to "Be with Me," and it was even once rumored (though finally proven false) that the faint recording of a woman and man in the throes of orgasm on the fade of "All I Want to Do," an otherwise rather forgettable foray into cock-rock starring Mike Love, was the sweet sound of one of Manson's studied orgies. Thus 20/20 forms, with Manson's LIE and the White Album, the triumvirate of albums for Manson historians, and all because Dennis didn't know how to say no to people.
On another note entirely, Bruce Johnston, of all people, also emerges as a writer with some skill on the instrumental "The Nearest Faraway Place." It's pretty lame, manipulative stuff, and what a hideous title, but it is effective mood music even if it's obviously pretty derivative of Brian's earlier triumphs. Speaking of which, Brian's work here is all on side two and manages to grab virtually all of the attention, though it's not insignificant that this the record on which he finally truly retreated from the Beach Boys as a producer and primary songwriter; part of the 20/20 process was tracking down fragments of Brian music the others could finish. Two of his four contributions were actually recorded in 1966, but since they happened to be recorded for... just guess... their addition at the end of the album proved a logical marketing decision. "Our Prayer" and "Cabinessence" are both lovely songs that stretch and swell and reveal on their own terms, like most of the better material from the Smile sessions, but they sound woefully removed from their ideal context here. "I Went to Sleep" much more accurately captures Wilson's state of mind circa 1969, but still with the loving detail that made him famous, and even a kind of odd hedonism. He reaches beyond his own limitations, and those of his band, with "Time to Get Alone," the rare love song in pop music that manages to capture its own world of emotion, the solace of comfort and isolation with a partner, without any kind of artifice. It was intended to be sung by others (written for Redwood, as "Darlin'" had been), but the Beach Boys have a hold on its essence like no one else ever could. It's not delicate, it's set and sturdy like a great relationship, and it's among the most gorgeous and sensual moments in a catalog full of them.
Although it contains some of their best work, what is new on 20/20 is collected here too incoherently to make any kind of advancement. Instead the band sounds like they're marking time and trying to stretch in a million directions at once. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but this ominously is the first of four LPs in a row that give that impression. But "Be with Me," "Time to Get Alone," "Cabinessence," "I Can Hear Music," and "I Went to Sleep" alone are enough to make you want to get together and do it again, even if it meant sitting through years upon years of more of this and not a single moment as unified as Pet Sounds. Songs are what it's about, after all.
[Originally posted in 2003.]