Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Surf's Up (1971)
A fair review of Surf's Up is an impossible task because it's an unfair album. You want it to be perfect from beginning to end; the cover is so damn cool, and you just know the title track, an almost apocalyptic Smile outtake, is going to be amazing, and it is. A little less than half of the album meets these expectations. Brian's two contributions exceed them; they are unbelievably, incredibly good. Much of the rest is awful. The great parts, however, are so wonderful I simply can't bring myself not to at least recommend the LP.
And really, there's nothing outright unlistenable here, but "Don't Go Near the Water," despite a nifty piano hook, is a bad choice for an opening track, and the preachy, poorly-written lyrics, full of pandering ecological nonsense, render it immediately forgettable. Al's pair of songs are just weird, in a bad way. "Take a Load Off Your Feet" sounds a tiny bit like the Velvet Underground circa "Andy's Chest" in places, but it's a damn song about feet. "Lookin' at Tomorrow," though nice and short, is even worse. The subtitle "A Welfare Song" makes a dull track seem condescending to boot. Plus, Al is a good, wide-ranging singer, so why is he trying to sound like Mike Love on this album?
Predictably, Love provides the biggest humiliation, the appalling four-minute "Student Demonstration Time." You can tell it sucks by the title, but man, does it suck. The cloying rewrite of "Riot in Cell Block #9" has some nice guitar work, but it mostly consists of the band, or at least Mike, trying too hard to be cool or convincing or current or something, and the lyrics seem downright offensive coming from a staunch Republican. Obviously, the "little art band" phase of the Beach Boys' history has ended. They clearly are fumbling for an audience, even if the result sometimes is as fine as their other recent work. (It did work; the album gained significant FM airplay and sold well.) New manager Jack Rieley may be to blame, and he managed to frustrate Bruce to the point of quitting within a few months of Surf's Up's release. Rieley commits himself to lyricist duties on several tracks. They're predictably clumsy and embarrassing, sub-Van Dyke Parks shit made worse by the comparison to Parks' more professional weirdness on "Surf's Up." And the guy even sings on one track, the insane "A Day in the Life of a Tree," an environmental manifesto from the perspective of a dying tree, but that was at the request of Brian, who insisted that Rieley "sounds like a tree." (Parks' complementary vocal on the same song is unexplained.)
The most important development glimpsed here is Carl Wilson's coming of age as a songwriter. It may not be as fascinating as Dennis' full-fledged blossoming on Friends and Sunflower, but it presents a pair of worthwhile if minor chestnuts -- "Long Promised Road," despite its lyrical clumsiness, is a sobering state-of-the-union wafting from the ashes of the '60s. "Feel Flows" is an engaging tribute to the already distant glory days of Brian, Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations," with the elder Wilson's head-spinning sonic pleasure updated to the world of Moogs and state-of-the-art recording technology. Again, the alliteration-obsessed lyrics are humiliating ("Whether whiteness whisks soft shadows away"?), but you can sense how hard Carl is trying and it's a good effort. (It's a pity that Dennis, apparently due to some infighting, is nearly absent from the record as a composer despite having several songs ready to go at the time; he could have really helped with the consistency here.) Bruce has his most famous-ever contribution to the Beach Boys' discography with "Disney Girls (1957)," an unabashedly nostalgic wish for simpler times that, the narrator seems painfully aware, never really existed. In a sense this is a wake-up call like "Long Promised Road," and it has become something of a standard (covered by everyone from Cass Elliott to Art Garfunkel), though the Beach Boys' original remains somewhat obscure. It may be saccharine -- syrupy as hell, actually, and hard to take -- but at least it's sincere, in contrast to Mike Love's empty claptrap.
The reason Surf's Up is remembered fondly, however, is the pair of closing tracks. The eponymous song, one of the grand experiences and ultimate works of ethereal beauty in all of rock history, is the Beach Boys' absolute knockout, their most wholly impressive moment and certainly the centerpiece of the legendary Smile collaborations between Brian and Van Dyke Parks -- a meditation on art and reality, war and peace, change and consistency, and most of all, the unforgiving ache of loss. Beginning to end, it is the perfect work of pop ambition; all other attempts at "progression," "art-rock," "rock opera," and the like need not bother applying. It was all done here, and if it managed release in 1967, the Beatles' "A Day in the Life" would have had serious competition as a summation and totem. The other lyrics Parks wrote for the Beach Boys, though never irksomely trippy or dated, sound clumsy or pretentious, especially coming from men associated so closely with "409" and such, but with a few weak moments notwithstanding, "Surf's Up" contains along with "Wonderful" his best work with the group, its profundity mostly free of strain. Released four years later after being written and mostly recorded, "Surf's Up" now seems like a meditation on everything the Beach Boys once were and no longer are, everything Brian had the potential to do and never could. It is even more moving in this guise, impossible as that may seem. Once again, the Beach Boys are aided by a business problem: Smile material was being reword and leaked out because part of the Reprise deal necessitated both Brian's involvement and the completion of Smile; without this cumbersome quota, though, Surf's Up would be a far more mediocre record, and would probably not have tracked a slight commercial resurgence for the group.
The preceding cut, "'Til I Die," plays with the same themes, but is far more hopeless in tone, and is so different from "Surf's Up" as to be incomparable, yet it is the perfect match in terms of its sequencing on the LP. (The Good Vibrations boxed set places it after the latter track and it sounds all wrong.) With expansive, almost painfully beautiful harmonies, oceanic and as delicate as a feather, the message is impossible not to understand and feel: "I'm a leaf on a windy day / Pretty soon I'll be blown away / How long will the wind blow? / How long will the wind blow?" The drama, the desperation, the resignation, is all in that repetition. "Til I Die" is among Brian's finest moments as a composer and lyricist; it's certainly a difficult task to name a more moving song. Regardless of the album's flaws, "'Til I Die" and "Surf's Up" would be worth the price alone, but not everything else here is bad. Don't let the lack of balance disrupt what, in some moments, is a rich and wounding record.
[Originally posted with slight differences in 2003.]