Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Sunflower (1970)
When the Beach Boys departed Capitol for an ostensibly artist-friendly deal licensing product out under their own Brother label to Reprise, this was the idealized endpoint: a democratically structured album meant to revitalize them for fans and in the wider pop marketplace. (It had been two years since their last major hit, "Do It Again.") The maneuver didn't work, and the album barely charted; it's since grown in stature and for some fans, it's heavenly. As a band, the Beach Boys have never been more unified; although Brian's songs inevitably are the ones that grab the listener's attention immediately, the remainder of the album is consistent, if rarely as inspired as the last five of their Capitol LPs, which would remain the only period in the Beach Boys' career when they operated, it seems, almost separately from commercial motivations or concern about outsider appeal.
Building on that energy, Brian hasn't lost his touch for adventurous music yet, but the advance single couldn't bode well. It's tempting to hear "Add Some Music to Your Day" as condescending nonsense. I'm not fully convinced it isn't... "The Sunday mornin' gospel goes good with the soul" (what the hell?) plants the seeds of "Gregorian chants were a real big thing," a few albums later, and I have to prefer "Do you remember all the guys that gave us rock & roll?" circa 1964 anyway. As charming as I find Brian Wilson's ignorance of all pretense to expressive -- well, oh my, oh gosh, oh gee -- language, in works like "Busy Doin' Nothin'" and "Roller Skating Child" it seemed to fit because he was writing about things that, though not the stuff of teenage diaries, were identifiably personal. Much of the fun is lost when he's trying to explain the history and meaning of music on a two year-old vocabulary and pretending he believes a word of it himself. "At a movie, you can feel it touching your heart." You don't mean that, Brian.
So let me confess, and I don't think this is a bias (what bias?) talking... the voices won me over. The Beach Boys toss the lead vocal back and forth on "Add Some Music" like it's a soccer game, and Bruce Johnston, of all people, gets the goal. "Your doctor knows it keeps you calm / Your preacher adds it to his psalm / So add some music to your day." Makes no sense but I'm somehow comforted, not least because I feel as if I know these people singing. It may all be fabricated bullshit, but I trust them.
That's not the only place where they're stretching it for me. It pains me to say this, but the group effort "It's About Time" is trying too hard for credibility. It's the Beach Boys and it's rock & roll in a non-threatening, pre-sliced sort of way, but it's a whole lot of energy spent on manipulating what you think of the song and the band. Rip its loaded intentions away and you've got nothing in your hands. It's a living commercial for itself: "Struggling to express myself for the whole world to see... I used to blow my mind sky-high searchin' for the lost elation [the "lost elation"!?]... Now I'm but a child who art [art!]..." Wow, and here I thought it was all about ridin' the clutch to get the traction. I'm not one to dwell on lyrics, and the rhythm and guitar and vocals play a big role in what makes "It's About Time" such a festival of posturing, but it's far from my capability as a writer or liar to deny that a big part of the Beach Boys' appeal is/was that they who would emit "Well, it's been building up inside of me for, oh, I don't know how long" would never ever dream of feeding us "The time to hesitate is through, the time to wallow in the mire." This tendency toward distractingly florid language would only get worse when manager and lyricist Jack Rieley joined the gang soon after this; sure, Van Dyke Parks wrote some whoppers but at least he was attempting to channel Brian Wilson's sensibility to some extent, and even his clumsiest couplets could be scanned and delivered competently if not brilliantly by the Beach Boys, but for several years in the early '70s bad lyrics would frequently come close to ruining otherwise good songs by the band.
In yet more ominous foreshadowing, there's also a reference point for the cutesy Eric Carmen void they'd explore even later, in Al Jardine's "At My Window." Up to now the Beach Boys had generally remained on the right side of the line between art and indulgence, but it's possible they fell into this skill due more than anything to an inability to check themselves. No restraint, no control, just recording what they wanted with infinite studio time at their disposal. Conversely, it can't be a coincidence that the first Beach Boys songs post-Pet Sounds that strike the occasional doubtful chord in me are on their first album for Warner/Reprise; it's like they're putting on a good but artificial face for a new relationship. Gotta impress those suits, and the album was rejected first time around; an overhaul followed. This speaks volumes.
As usual with this band, you can't pigeonhole these songs with such misgivings because, again, a number of them are laudably strong, and to present another theory, the variance in both quality and sound here may be a result of a conscious attempt at giving everyone their time in the limelight (as on 20/20), or perhaps simply every stylistic turn possible for them in such a brief window of time. Hence the fact that Bruce Johnston can give us an unlikely but forcefully undeniable pop gem like "Deirdre" but also turn us all off with Humperdink theatrics for "Tears in the Morning," the unfortunate fact of life being that although Johnston would follow up with another schmaltzy nugget on the next Beach Boys album, he'd then leave and clone "Tears" for Barry Manilow and strike pop chart gold.
Inescapably, Brian is the star of the show. He brings us four more masterpieces this time around, chump change in a catalog full of them, but each of the four in this case worth a Today!-era single or two. This Whole World" is a runaway train of a pop song, as structured and studied as any of Brian's classics but running at an unstoppable pace, never pausing in any of its individual sections long enough to ponder its existence, forcing you to taste its gleeful abandon only in sweet, short aural glimpses. It's less than two minutes long; you listen to it enough and it warps you to the point that you wonder why all songs aren't this short. And I promise, you'll never get enough. "Cool, Cool Water" is calmer but no less amazing. It, too, defies the rules of its medium; derived from Smile with a bit of the "Good Vibrations" melody in tow, it's less a song than a soundscape. Brian's chosen form of passage into this kind of ambiance comes, perversely (but not for him) and lovably, in the form of the human voice. Mike Love wants you to know that cool water is a gas, and like that we're home again. The track extrapolates for five minutes but it doesn't feel excessive.
I wouldn't put "Our Sweet Love" up against either of those but I would play it for you on repeat for an hour, and aren't such comparisons pointless anyway? It sounds to me a bit like the Byrds. It has a dumb line about incense and flowers, but that's okay, it also has "Lord knows I love her so" and a lovely guitar solo. The album's strongest track, and the one reportedly with the largest contributions from Mike Love, is the remarkable "All I Wanna Do," every slow power-pop nugget from 1971 on in a single short package. The voices echo and swirl, the melody entices, and the entire song is delicate in the best of ways, floating around and seducing, playing on and with every listener's expectations. Nobody I know of has turned sheer romance into such note-perfect pop. Easily as beautiful as Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, it's the kind of thing, like "This Whole World" and "Cool, Cool Water," that will keep you addicted for life once you've been exposed once.
Certainly, these twelve cuts are a challenge at times to the "Brian was the Beach Boys" dialogue, even though Brian's songwriting is still leaving everyone else in the dust, with one exception. Dennis Wilson continues to astonish with his unexpectedly warm trilogy -- opening the album with the deliciously sensual "Slip on Through," he additionally provides the Beach Boys with their most beloved love song ("God Only Knows" aside), "Forever," which conquers its excessive syrup with an awe-inspiring vocal arrangement and the pure sincerity of Dennis' lead. Plus, he's wonderfully aware of his own myth, Manson orgies and all. On the bawdy "Got to Know the Woman" (a Dennis title if there ever was one, as Brian points out in the liner notes), he explodes with Jagger lust in ridiculous lines like "C'mon, c'mon and do the chicken" before finally bursting out in laughter. Of course, "Slip on Through" is the best of the lot; somehow I can't help but believe in its proclamations -- "Now you relax and let your mind go free / You won't forget the feeling you receive" -- more than "So I'm goin' away, but not forever." Nonetheless, "Forever" is Dennis' most beloved composition because it proves his genius as a pop writer.
The obvious pining to be seen as a mature band leads to an album that soars on occasion, stumbles elsewhere, and feels uncomfortably compromised, but Sunflower at its best points a way forward for the Beach Boys to continue evolving. Scarcely heard at the time, the record has gradually come to be seen almost as a successor to Pet Sounds, which is a stretch, but something about the record's laid-back, democratic vibe strikes a chord. "Deirdre" may sound like, as one music critic put it, "Beach Boys-influenced anybody" now, but I'd respond that it's not necessarily the band's fault. The fact that people are still hearing and responding to this is more than worth noting, whatever the result, and for all the compromises that produced it, Sunflower remains in its best moments a lovely snapshot of the Beach Boys in their calmest period as a band.
[Modified version of a review posted in 2003.]