Review Summary: Very uneasy and unusual album by the band struggling in difficult circumstances. Take a deep breath, and feel flows.
In 1970, The Beach Boys made «Sunflower», one of the greatest sunshine pop albums ever. In 1971, they recorded its successor that could be described as soundtrack of their current lives. It's NOT sequel to 1963 «Surfin' USA», it's not sequel to «Sunflower» either.
«Sunflower» is sunny, sweet and positive, «Surf's Up» is dark and suspicious. Those two albums can be found on the same CD but it's easy to feel the difference.
«Sunflower» was a team work. «Surf's Up» was not team work at all, there was no collaboration among band member except «Don't Go Near the Water». Two key songwriters on «Sunflower», Brian and Dennis Wilson were (mostly) absent, so the rest of the band had to jump in. Their then manager Jack Rieley helped, too, as lyricist (he co-wrote three songs) and vocalist on «A Day in the Life of a Tree».
Mike, Alan, Carl and Bruce have been too long in the music business but somehow I saw them unsure of what they were gonna do next, maybe they became sick of love songs and naivety that made them popular so they wanted to do something completely different: Protest songs? Nostalgia? Mysticism? Ecology? Depression?
"So hard to answer future's riddle when ahead is seeming so far behind" - "Long Promised Road"
They tried all of that. And results are by turns between very inspired and pathetic. I never liked «Don't Go Near the Water», really kindergarten melody with strong middle eight and «Student Demonstration Time», unsuccesful hybrid of Fifties rock'n'roll combined with lyrics about killing four students in Ohio. This event was much better immortalised in CSNY hit «Ohio». Those two songs are low points but they have some virtues – inventive use of synths and megaphone effects, but overall, they are substandard efforts. I believe that Dennis Wilson single «Sound of Free» would be better for this album than «Student Demonstration Time» (that very song was also issued as single – no wonder it flopped).
There are no love songs on «Surf's Up». The Beach Boys album with no love songs? OK, «Disney Girls» - really nice nostalgic effort by Bruce Johnston about time when everything was better than now, Sinatra-styled evocative ballad with great vocal harmonies. Their vocal arrangements are not on par with their past glories, except «'Til I Die», «Disney Girls» and title track, long lost «Smile» song.
The lyrics? Compare this: "If every word I say could make you laugh, I'd talk forever" from "Sunflower" and "Unfolding enveloping missiles of soul recall senses sadly" from "Surf's Up".
Brian Wilson was absent during «Surf's Up» sessions. However, he gave three songs to the band, aforementioned «'Til I Die» and «Surf's Up», and «A Day in Life of a Tree». Dennis Wilson's presence was even more discreet. He had plenty of songs, and no one made the final cut. He eventually released solo single, «Sound of Free» which had some airplay in England and allegedly prepared solo album.
Production is good, they used to add lots of Moog synthesizers to their sound picture. The main mood of the album is seriousness, anxiety and concerning, miles away from careless nature of their Sixties' records. Maybe were The Beach Boys inspired by the last two Beatles' albums, «Abbey Road» and «Let It Be».
The highlights of the album include: «Disney Girls (1957)», «Feel Flows», five minute mystic epic with synths, guitars, multiple vocals and flute by Charles Lloyd, then two Brian's gems, the waltz «Til' I Die», really scary insight in Brian's mental state (it can be considered as his suicide letter), and five years old mythic «Surf's Up», which ended the album.
It's hard to recommend this album, but if you are a serious fan of The Beach Boys, you are probably going to like it.