Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Holland (1973)
The centerpiece of Holland, one of the most expensive albums of its time, is a ten-minute collage of wanderlust called "California Saga"; theoretically and partially it's the kind of pompous crap that bogged just about every mainstream act down in the '70s, but underneath its self-importance lies a thing of beauty. This is, after all, the Beach Boys, and they among few other pop groups were able to embrace the high-minded experimentation of progressive rock while maintaining their simplistic grace. Named ironically (for its recording location) given its subject, it's (gulp) a concept album about civilization's beginnings, more specifically America's beginnings, even more specifically California's beginnings. Pretty much any other band could have attempted something like this and fallen flat on their faces with a permanent blotch on their career record, but the Beach Boys take a personal approach and relate the artful intellectualism of their subject to the theme that penetrates their entire body of work: unforgiving contradiction. Discovery is marred by displacement, a new life destroys someone's old one, love is tempered by memory, lust and faith by loss.
It's a lot to tackle, and the result isn't perfect. The lyrics, especially those contributed by manager Jack Rieley, sometimes stumble, and one can't help but hear Holland and think of what Smile, Brian Wilson's botched LP about American dreams and realities, could have been. Brian is nonexistent on this record except on the single, "Sail on, Sailor," and the closing track, "Funky Pretty." In fact, the band at this point is moving farther and farther away from the sunny pop of Brian's heyday and toward a more soulful, crunching rock style, still tempered by shimmering harmonies but undoubtedly influenced by the two newer South African members, Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin.
The band, for all intents and purposes, seems to belong to Carl at this point, and it's a good thing because his creative ambition is as restless as Brian's, even if as a songwriter he is neither as skilled as his brothers nor anywhere near as prolific. Even when the cracks show, the music is sometimes thrilling, and the more one listens to the album, the richer its textures become. "The Trader," for example, may sound crowded and clumsy and a bit too politically correct for its own good on first exposure, but Carl's sympathetic, bitter ode to the casting off of Native American culture is as heartfelt as any of the Beach Boys' peak work, and the second portion of the song, with its enveloping harmonies, percussive rhythm, hushed compassion, and brilliant vocal and instrumental work, are a highlight of his career as composer.
Dennis Wilson, though he doesn't sing much on the album, contributes a pair of classics in the foreboding "Steamboat" and "Only with You," which deserves to be a standard; as Denny love songs go, it's up there with "Forever." Ricky and Blondie, however, are the stars of the show, and it seems undeniable that their artistic and musical contributions were a guiding light in this era along with Carl's. Unlike their pair of sublime songs on So Tough, the Elton John-like "Leaving This Town" is a true group effort, co-written with Carl and Mike, and despite an instrumental break that goes on a bit too long, this stark ode to loneliness amid the passage of time is among the truly arresting moments in the Beach Boys' latter-day catalog. If only these two eternally gifted musicians had been able to remain with the band longer, we might have continued hearing wonderful, original music from the Beach Boys for much longer.
The objects of the most scrutiny, of course, are Brian's songs, and of course, with his near-total isolation from the band, they have the most tenuous connection to the remainder of the record, and thus are placed where they belong, opening and closing it. "Sail on Sailor" has become a minor classic, and Blondie's vocal is certainly arresting. Jack Rieley's lyrical contributions are a different story, leaving the singer to weave his tongue around oddly structured phrases that have none of the relative grace of Van Dyke Parks' work (though he had a hand in the writing of "Sailor" as well, along with seemingly half the people listed in the L.A. phone directory). That doesn't stop the song from being enjoyable, but it does call up major misgivings about how much of a blessing Rieley was for the Beach Boys. "Funky Pretty" is looser and more fun, but it's a case of a track that never truly came alive until it was pulled out onstage, decent though the album cut is.
Indeed, the strain of an arduous, lengthy series of recording sessions is clear on an album that occasionally seems rather muddled; many of the songs here are blown away by the live versions on In Concert, which are able to reveal their intricacies and stellar arrangements. However, the "California Saga" is strictly a studio triumph, even though the middle section, a bizarre poetry reading called "Beaks of Eagles," is the one moment on Holland that collapses under the weight of its overblown ambition. Mike Love's "Big Sur" makes up for it; easily the best song he ever wrote on his own, it's a jaw-dropping piece, a beautiful waltz that feels more timeless than almost anything else the band released in its faux-prog, faux-country rock, faux-soul, faux-whatever era. Al's "California," though it can't stand up to that, makes for an excellent single, sharing the wistful nostalgia and sheer elegance of "Big Sur."
The Beach Boys were certainly at a peak of some kind, able to attempt nearly anything and make it work, and Holland is unique both in the context of its time and otherwise. The album marks the moment when their democratic, post-Capitol period finally hit its stride, fulfilling the promise of Sunflower and Surf's Up with a much more cohesive but still varied statement. It's a pity that as soon as they felt comfortable enough in their new skin to release an album like this, the adventure unceremoniously ended within a little over a year. In the studio and live, they were such a well-functioning unit in the 1973-74 period you could easily picture them writing and recording four or five more modest albums like this in the decade, with or without Brian's input. Their new direction would, of course, be halted first by the departure of Fataar and Chaplin, then by the mass public embrace of their older work. Holland will live forever, though, as a testament to what this criminally underappreciated band could do.
[Expanded from a review posted in 2003.]