Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Today! (1965)
1965 marked the peak of the Beach Boys' powers; their work continued to gather popular momentum with an unbroken streak of radio hits as Brian Wilson, now retired from touring, set to work constructing unified albums full of songs with increasingly ambitious compositions and arrangements. In reality, Today! (its title a sort of Yank variation on The Rolling Stones Now!, presumably) probably gets more credit than it deserves as a cohesive statement, but it's certainly as refined and heartfelt in its best moments as the Beatles' Rubber Soul, the album that Brian claims to have inspired Pet Sounds. He fell in love with the shortened American version of Rubber Soul because it never faltered and retained a specific mood throughout. Released several months earlier, Today! at least flirts with those same qualities whether the eldest Wilson knew it or not.
Side Two of Today! is famously stark, the prototype for Pet Sounds that finds Brian investigating sophisticated AM pop territory with five straight ballads, all but one of them originals. "I'm So Young" is a bull's-eye cover even if it does prove a point about Brian's earlier robbery of his sources (see "Spirit of America") and seems trite compared to the other songs here as well as the earlier "We'll Run Away," plagued with a similar theme. The rest of the material is invariably grand, but the most beautiful inclusion is at the very beginning of the suite: "Please Let Me Wonder," as seductive as "Don't Talk" and as personal as "Let Him Run Wild," is among the finest songs of unrequited love in rock & roll. Given Brian's meticulous craft, it sounds wonderfully unkempt, particularly the lead vocal line, and it doesn't take much to realize it comes from the heart.
Much of this music feels like Brian's and no one else's. In the film The Beach Boys: An American Band, the entire group is seen performing "Please Let Me Wonder," and it's momentarily jarring to see Al and even Mike on stage in the context of a sensitive composition that lays its singer and writer so bare, worlds away from "Good Vibrations" or "Fun, Fun, Fun," as marvelous as those songs are. This holds true for much of the last half of Today! and certainly for Pet Sounds -- the possibly unfair age-old question was, how much of a band could they be? For the first time, Brian's stable of Wrecking Crew session musicians dominates roughly half of Today!, not nearly to the extent that older biographies tended to report, but they're here and obvious. ("Don't Hurt My Little Sister," "When I Grow Up," "Dance, Dance, Dance," "I'm So Young" and "She Knows Me Too Well" are primarily Beach Boys; the other six songs are primarily the Crew.) A Beach Boys record never before escaped a resemblance to grinding rock & roll -- guitar, for that matter, though there are some terrific solos and interludes here from both Carl and Glen Campbell -- for such a stretch. But even "Kiss Me, Baby," the most florid Brian Wilson production yet, is an old fashioned hook-ridden pop number with Mike's delightful bass vocals. It still is a Brian song, undoubtedly, but the youthful charm seems to linger even as its absence from more "adult" pieces such as "In the Back of My Mind" and the bruising "She Knows Me Too Well" is increasingly conspicuous.
No implication that it's a bad thing, though, and really, there's more unfiltered hyper-emotional Brian here than we'd see until Love You twelve years later. Some of this material, particularly "She Knows Me," is so personal it can be a difficult listen -- Brian does even less to hide the naked vulnerability on his lead vocal than he would on "Let Him Run Wild" a few months hence. Today! is a revelatory listen mainly because it seems to have been a revelation for its creator. Indeed, here's a trick for you: add "Please Let Me Wonder" and "In the Back of My Mind," a mournful, jazzy, left-field funeral march sung by Dennis to the beloved Pet Sounds, and I'll wager you can't tell a major difference. There is none except that Brian has no second lyricist here to filter his thoughts into acceptable poetics. "In the Back of My Mind" is chilling in its precision; it's not just for the chords and sessions and mixing that Brian is known as articulate beyond all others for his abilities with the nuance of human emotion in pop.
The moment that has always surprised me the most is on "She Knows Me Too Well." The attitude exhibited in the song by its jealous, tortured lover protagonist ("When I look at other girls it must kill her inside / But it'd be another story if she looked at the guys") seems antiquated and shocking, but as "God Only Knows" later demonstrated, Brian is no simplistic romantic, and few other people in pop music would have enough self-awareness about standard-issue chauvinism to write that couplet. (Goffin-King and Jagger-Richards, maybe.) Just a few months later, after all, John Lennon would be telling that little girl she'd better run for her life, and hey, Brian and Mike would be calling out for all the women of the world to magically change their place of birth so they'd be the cutest girls in the world, too. "She Knows Me Too Well" may not demonstrate positive behavior but it's certainly honest, and telling.
There's a part of me more comfortable with the Beach Boys as casually eloquent rock & roll band than as laboriously sensitive, fragile balladeers, but there's really no strain anywhere on this record, and that part of me always has Side One anyway, so maybe Brian really did stumble upon the ideal album format this time out. He does a fair bit of damage to the coherence at the end by capping off the sublime "In the Back of My Mind" with an amusing but strange interview clip that, although better than the padding on Shut Down Volume 2 and All Summer Long, is still insulting filler.
The first half of the album is less celebrated, but "Do You Wanna Dance?" is hardly second-tier, and it's a perfect opener; Denny's voice catapulted it to the top 40 and it topples Bobby Freeman's original without hesitation. The blissful rockers "Good to My Baby" and "Don't Hurt My Little Sister" follow with breakneck speed, enough to warrant an immediate nomination for this as the best-paced Beach Boys album. "Help Me, Ronda," presented in its sparkling original version (no H!), with the bouncy tempo, a rollicking Al vocal, and some marvelously weird volume control trickery, is so much better than the cut that hit #1 it's incredible to me that anyone could prefer the single. Somehow even with the same lyrics, it seems like a much more human piece in this guise. "Dance, Dance, Dance" isn't one of their best singles either, and despite the barer-than-it-sounds instrumentation it owes more to Spector than almost anything else they released, but it still shows off Brian as expert showman, and his wall of sound does come alive through the Beach Boys' sheer enthusiasm as singers and players.
Everything on Today!, the string of sentiment on the second half included, pales a bit beside the intensely affecting first single. "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" is the point when Brian Wilson's personal ruminations, usually reserved for buried album tracks ("Your Summer Dream," "The Warmth of the Sun," "Don't Back Down"), show their face in full on the radio, perhaps as a result of the mild success of "Don't Worry, Baby." It's among the saddest songs to ever hit the airwaves, a beautifully written (lyrically and otherwise) epitaph to youth that examines the years to come with resignation. (Compare "Surf's Up.") The song is poignant because its curiosity is innocent at first ("Will I dig the same things that turned me on as a kid..." etc.) while its growing insecurity takes the spotlight as the two minutes of engineered glory roll on. By the end, amid the rolling off of the passing years, Mike and Brian's familiar voices are quietly accepting: "Won't last forever / It's kind of sad." The Beach Boys' sophistication was growing beyond the reach of the radio by this point; "When I Grow Up" nonetheless became another major hit, and it's stunning from the first deeply felt note to the final fade, equally stunning to learn that such a complex piece of music was put on record by the Boys themselves. In particular, hearing Dennis pound out such a difficult, complicated drum part should give the lie to the tiresome allegations that he couldn't play.
Despite what theoretically seems like lumpy sequencing, Today! works wonderfully as an album, at least if you program out the last track and maybe even if you don't -- I do enjoy Brian's remark that "I haven't made a mistake yet, in my whole career" (but not Mike's foreboding reply: "We keep waiting for you to make a mistake, Brian"). It's second only to Summer Days as their best pre-Pet Sounds effort. Summer Days is a more frequent listen since it's faster and more fun, but aside from the interview bit, nothing on Today! is far from brilliance, and even outside of this band's work it holds its own alongside the pantheon of classic mid-'60s albums.
[Originally posted in slightly different form in 2003.]