Review Summary: A muddled effort, with a grab-bag of songs and a distinct soul feel, but a modicum of quality material. Worth a listen for those who already know what the classic BB recordings are like.
So it's 1985. Dennis Wilson drowned in an alcohol incident two years ago, Brian Wilson is under the care of a lunatic psychotherapist called Landy who won't let him use the can without a 'minder', Carl Wilson is fighting with the rest of the group members, Bruce Johnston and Mike Love have turned into goofy old men, and Al Jardine is going, 'Umm, fellas, I'm here too you know.' Oh, and Reagan's in the White House. What better time for the Beach Boys to finally release a self-titled album? Better yet, a self-titled album produced by Culture Club mavon Steve Levine and with tracks contributed by the aforementioned Landy, Boy George and Stevie Wonder?
Yeah, the lead-in makes it sound like all hell, doesn't it? The surprise is that this album is actually rather solid. This status is more or less entirely due to the contributions of Carl Wilson. He writes (or co-writes) the best songs, sings the best vocals, plays the best musical parts, and is just generally the saviour of the project. In a surprising twist from the way things used to be, Brian Wilson's participation is the utter nadir of the project. His vocals sound surprisingly youthful, so long as he's relegated to the background, or to smaller parts; when he takes a lead on 'I'm So Lonely', he sounds like somebody put a gun to his head and said 'Sing.' (And you thought Phil Spector never worked with the Beach Boys.) Plus, the songs that he was writing are so vapid that it hurts, although how much of this can truly be blamed on him is a debatable point- Landy was responsible for most of the lyrics (or so he claimed, anyway), and they tend toward the generic side of things.
The album isn't exactly a crapshoot of different styles, although there are quite a few explored. Soul seems especially prominent this time around, with a few of Carl's numbers tending to the funkier side of things, and Stevie Wonder's fine 'I Do Love You' being a full-on R&B number (with nearly all of the instruments played by Wonder himself). Besides that, there are two '60s-style surf numbers, really the only ones on the disc where Love makes it totally clear that he's around. Of the two, the lead single 'Getcha Back' has a decent enough beat (most critics agreed that it sounded like something Dennis might have played had he still been around) and some knockout group vocals, but a silly premise and no real chorus. The other one, 'California Calling', can't even be saved by Ringo Starr playing drums on it, or the highest energy this side of 'Radio Nowhere'.
The production is the sticking point for many and possibly most fans. Levine's style was the stereotypical '80s synthesiser sound, with programmed drums, electronic bass, a ***load of keyboards and the occasional guitar or saxophone riding over the top. Now, the weird part is that really, it's not that bad. In many cases- fingers pointed firmly at 'She Believes In Love Again' and 'I'm So Lonely'- the sound does destroy the song, although in the latter example, there wasn't a whole lot to destroy in the first place. But in most other cases, the sound actually complements the song, and the electronic textures are totally tasteful and pleasing. The best example here is the quiet, reserved 'Where I Belong', far and away the best track on the disc, with beautiful group vocals and an electronic DX1 lead over numerous layers of pads and bass tones. 'It's Gettin' Late' is another good one there, and it's also a strong contender for the disc's funkiest track, with a full horn section (live!) coming in at the end and doo-wop style vocals around the back.
This album isn't for everyone, I must admit. If the sound of '80s synthesisers turn you off, you should just run screaming from the computer. (And if you ever come across a copy of one of the next two albums, kill yourself.) But if you're into solid sounds with good group vocals and a halfway decent feel, this disc is worth checking out.