Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: Love You (1977)


(Reprise)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Maybe it's the way the futuristic keyboards that open "Let Us Go on This Way" seem to evoke the Righteous Brothers and Devo simultaneously, or maybe it's the way lyrics like "Well, oh my, oh gosh, oh gee" suddenly seem like the most important things ever uttered by a human mouth; the point is, something strange is going on here, and Love You is not only unusual or unique, it's otherworldly. It's also the most blatantly honest statement made by any rock band in the '70s, and for that reason it is bound to make people uncomfortable in large numbers -- indeed, it has, and what could be more rock & roll than that? Sending some into blissful oblivion while causing others to shift nervously in their seats; what more could you want as an entertainer? Love You is not a chronicle of freedom or romance; what makes it timeless is its ruthless desire for what it cannot have, whether it's a good lay or a trip back twenty years when things seemed to make so much more sense.

It is an album that could be created by no one but Brian Wilson. That includes others in his band who, until 1976's 15 Big Ones, had slowly swept control of the Beach Boys away from him. Love You is the most personal statement made by the band, and certainly Brian, since their acknowledged masterstroke Pet Sounds, and the truth is that it's a "last gasp" (to use Brian's own phrase from "Cabin Essence"), the sound of a man desperately struggling to regain his identity. On many of these songs and "Let Us Go on This Way" in particular, he is begging to be heard and understood, and there is no Van Dyke Parks to dilute his vision in purple, no Tony Asher to organize it into a series of greeting cards. "When I leave you I'm so depressed / 'Cause you're my only happiness."

These fourteen songs are raw, barely produced, and sung with little of the falsetto fire that lit, say, "Don't Worry Baby," but a kind of perverted gusto unheard of in nearly all '60s rock; despite the teasingly elaborate writing and tricky arrangements, by and large Brian's best since "This Whole World" and "Til I Die," it all coalesces nicely with the New York punk movement and was, indeed, praised to the skies by Patti Smith among others. The bubbling synthesizers and general goofiness disguise the fact that as a composer, Wilson is as ambitious as he ever was, and is still playing with pop conventions, both celebrating and defying them within a single two-minute work. "I'll Bet He's Nice" is a head-spinning example -- the three Wilson brothers sing, Carl with unparalleled sweetness, while a wall of sound seemingly made from beeping, gurgling Atari 2600s surrounds them. There's only a hint of percussion, even as the electronics and humans seem to be part of an inescapable rhythm. Another track finds keyboards being used to a chilling effect, rising and falling with haunting minimalism that recalls fragments of Smile; Brian elects to match this with a lyric singing the praises of Johnny Carson, who is "a real live wire" -- "When guests are boring, he fills up the slack / The network makes him break his back."

"Roller Skating Child" and "Mona" both pose gleefully with ordinary pop structure but are rendered astonishing by the unrelentingly bizarre instrumentation, the always-potent vocals, and sly lyrics that seem to tell a million stories at once and show no embarrassment whatsoever for their banal, skeletal lyrics. The former, the album's most joyful love song, is a tower of glory that simply doesn't care what you think of how "we'll make sweet lovin' when the sun goes down" and "we'll even do more when your mama's not around." Brian's newfound clarity only makes his work more touching -- "Well, oh my, oh gosh, oh gee / She really sends chills inside of me." Although "Child" may be among the most lovable songs he's ever written, it's hard to imagine anything could be a match for the circular "Mona," which has Dennis excitedly playing Phil Spector records for a potential girlfriend. Such valentines to idols exemplify an ability Brian and the Beach Boys seem to share with no one -- to step backward while careening forward. It's no wonder "Good Time," a Sunflower outtake that must have seemed completely out of place at the time, fits in beautifully here; a sensibility has been acquired that is both universal and oddly focused. It seems almost that these songs would sound completely different, and maybe less impressive, in another context. That's why this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I find it hard, however, to proclaim Love You as a record of joy. It feels vital and desperate for a reason; Brian understands the things he has lost but he's not happy about it -- it was claimed in the '70s that he only motivated to make the record by crazed psychotherapist Eugene Landy, later that it was the one time he didn't carefully filter himself after the onset of his mental illness -- and the frustration is everywhere. The release date in the year of Jonathan Richman, Television, and Talking Heads is probably an accident, but it doesn't seem so -- the paranoia that marked those times and has marked all the times since is affecting Brian just as it affected Richman, Verlaine, and Byrne, but he reacts differently, crawling into a shell ("There's a world where I can go...") but expressing himself through memory, through youthful exuberance, and most importantly through song, which is his foremost line of communication (the magic transistor radio). Perhaps the album's title is as ironic as Surf's Up; loved ones are mentioned but they're usually absent or at least distant ("If Mars had life on it / I might find my wife on it"), and sometimes the void is extremely painful. "The Night Was So Young" is Brian's most intense ballad since "Let Him Run Wild"; you can't imagine how much the words "She'd be so right to hold me tonight" can hurt. On "Airplane," the lover is waiting at the airport, yet the cry to "carry me back to her side" seems more hopeful than certain. The brief collaboration with the Byrds' Roger McGuinn, "Ding Dang," speaks volumes; in less than a minute it describes an unrequited affection that is destroying the protagonist, balancing the pain with nonsense, which may be as fine a form of therapy as any.

Mystique was never Wilson's strong suit, but this is a song cycle with subtle undertones of an internal crisis that goes beyond mere directional confusion ("That's Not Me"): on the single, "Honkin' Down the Highway," how could the perfect girl who "loves me only" and is "used to runnin' away from guys," with whom we're treated to a play-by-play of a parent-sanctioned sexual encounter, be real? Why does the mad journey to "get past them cars" seem like an endless struggle, and why such brash modesty (assurance?), in appropriate squeaky voice from Al Jardine, that "I guess I got a way with girls"? Love You is focused on love and lust to the point that it seems to suggest, in a fashion not dissimilar to Today! and Pet Sounds, that human relationships sometimes function correctly only in brief, spontaneous spurts ("Maybe it won't last, but what do we care?"), but that in these cases someone is bound to be left behind and hurt ("Is somebody gonna tell me why she has to hide?"). The skepticism with love is contracted, of course, by an all-encompassing faith in simple happiness ("The woman sitting next to me tells me 'bout her guy / And I tell her all about you and I"), but Love You's fixation is the insane difficulty with which such bliss must be obtained. Brian duets at one point, on "Let's Put Our Hearts Together," with his wife, but the result is sterile and contrived, maybe intentionally; sometimes the best laid plans turn sour. Confronted with disappointment, Brian finds solace by escaping into other worlds, gleefully explaining the planets on "Solar System" or nuzzling his children on the impressively unfiltered "I Wanna Pick You Up."

In the end, however, the message is simply that life is tough shit, the little things make it worth living, and, perhaps most importantly, "love is a woman, so treat her tenderly tonight." Pure poetry, of the highest order, from the most humble of origins. Brian Wilson may never make a record this good again, but he doesn't have to. Certainly no one else in pop music can or will churn out anything remotely like this. After over a decade of meandering, the Beach Boys found their voice again: Brian Wilson, undoctored and uncompromised, the conditions under which he always creates his best work. What a shame they would never let him run amok like this again.

***

[Originally posted, with some slight differences, in 2003.]

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