The Beach Boys
Surf's Up


4.0
excellent

Review

by Alex Stephenson USER (43 Reviews)
May 15th, 2017 | 33 replies


Release Date: 1971 | Tracklist

Review Summary: An increasingly reclusive Brian Wilson comes out of the woodwork to write three dark, brooding masterpieces that massively elevate an otherwise good-but-inconsistent record.

Keeping tabs on the prognosis of the Beach Boys' career following the cancellation of the SMiLE album is a task comparable with one observing the motions of a bizarrely designed roller coaster. The paths the groups attempted to go down were so diverse and erratic that one could never be clear exactly what they wanted to do next. Certainly the most abrupt of all these transitions was that between their first two 70's releases, 1970's Sunflower and 1971's Surf's Up. Widely regarded as the band's best post-Pet Sounds record, Sunflower was a long-awaited return to stability, with the overall sense of unification between the band members at its highest point ever. This chemistry gave the album an extremely warm feel, occasionally to the point of saccharinity, and it also saw the two younger Wilson brothers, Dennis and Carl, given more creative leeway than ever before, allowing them to grow more as songwriters and musicians than any other album had done previously. Even though the record failed to do well commercially, it seemed like the band had finally found steady footing and would only continue to grow from there.

From a commercial standpoint, Surf's Up did indeed do better than most of its predecessors; however, musically the difference could not be more tangible. While the term "the difference was like night and day" may have lost some meaning in today's vernacular, it could not describe Sunflower and Surf's Up any better. As Sunflower is a representation of lightness and fluff (albeit well-crafted fluff) in every sense of the word, Surf's Up represents desolation and despair, not visceral in nature, but rather submissive to fate and the hell it will bring. Anyone with a basic knowledge of Beach Boys history can connect the dots regarding what this album is representing: the woes of Brian Wilson as his struggles with addiction and depression spiraled to some of their lowest points. Wilson only contributes three songs to the album (which will be discussed in depth later), but his influence is apparent everywhere, particularly in the dark, heavy production that washes over almost every track.

In many ways, this dense production ends up boosting what is actually by and large a fairly middling collection of songs from the Boys. After penning three songs on 20/20 and four songs on Sunflower, Dennis Wilson did not have a single song accepted onto the final track listing for Surf's Up, as the band's "hip" new manager Jack Rieley angled for a more socially-conscious set of songs. This role ended up falling into the hands of Mike Love and Al Jardine, arguably the band's two weakest songwriters at this point. The results are predictably mixed: the collab "Don't Go Near the Water" at least benefits from a really interesting arrangement, even if the lyrics are horrendously cheesy, and Al's "Lookin' at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)" is a perfectly acceptable pseudo-lo-fi folk tune. "Take a Load Off Your Feet" is a bit too lightweight to really make any impact, though, and Mike's "Student Demonstration Time" is an awful rewrite of the Leiber-Stoller track "Riot in Cell Block Number 9" that grates on the ears even before Mike Love's vocals enter (filtered in an attempt to make it sound like Love's shouting through a megaphone). The three other non-Brian Wilson tracks at least are pleasant, though neither "Long Promised Road" nor "Feel Flows" would be particularly notable Carl Wilson compositions were it not for Steve Desper's haunting production. "Disney Girls (1957)" does stand out in the Bruce Johnston canon, though; as saccharine as it may be, it lacks the relentless optimism of some of Johnston's more offensive tracks of that ilk, once again in large part thanks to the production and some interesting modulations in between the verses and choruses.

Not surprisingly, the highlight tracks are the three numbers penned exclusively or almost exclusively by Brian, which coincidentally also serve as the album's final three tracks. What's remarkable is how far they stand above everything else on this album; even the weakest of the three, "A Day in the Life of a Tree", contains more genuine emotion than every other song before it, even if this song might not be as musically interesting as some of the others. With Jack Rieley taking over lead vocal duties (joined by former Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks and Jardine for the fade-out) and an organ giving off a very dirge-like feel to the song, it depicts a tree corrupted by pollution and wishing for death, a haunting message considering Brian's mental situation at the time. While Rieley's vocals are unsurprisingly shaky, they complement the song extremely well, probably better than any member except maybe late-70's Dennis could have done, when his voice was ravaged by years of substance abuse.

As good as "A Day in the Life of a Tree" is, I think an argument could be made for Surf's Up's final two songs being the best of Brian's career. Certainly "'Til I Die" is the most personal and revealing track he ever wrote, depicting the troubled young songwriter as "a cork on the ocean, a rock in a landslide, a leaf on a windy day", an isolated, helplessly adrift person who will be at the mercy of others "until I die". The harmonies on this track are particularly stunning, especially at the ending coda, where Mike repeats "these things I'll be until I die", Carl echos the words "until I die", and the rest of the Boys sing layered chords in the background. It's a remarkable work of expression, so to say that the following track (also the title track) is even more so is a hell of a statement. Indeed, "Surf's Up" is a track one has to hear to properly comprehend; the final remnant of SMiLE to be released on a proper Beach Boys album, and also the crown jewel of the tracks from those sessions, the song is pieced together from a re-recording with a Carl Wilson lead (featuring the backing instrumentation intended for usage in SMiLE), a 1967 piano demo featuring Brian on lead, and a re-recording of the SMiLE outtake "Child is the Father of the Man" overdubbed as the track's ending. It's an absolute cornucopia of different sounds that, when coupled with Carl and Brian's heavenly vocals, the nonsensical yet still-remarkable lyrics, and harmonically diverse chord progressions, makes for a spell-binding listen. From a compositional standpoint it's at least as good as Wilson's other much-acclaimed masterpieces like "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations", and if anything it actually surpasses them on that front.

Surf's Up is nothing if not wildly inconsistent, and it is certainly not ideal that the last three songs outclass everything else on the record so heavily. But even without those tracks, the album would at least be a good listen, perhaps eventually taking on the cult status of a Smiley Smile or a Love You thanks to its eclectic nature. With those songs, it at least elevates itself to "essential listen status" in the Boys' catalog, an important transition point in the band's career and what essentially amounts to "musical genius" Brian Wilson's last hurrah. Depending on who you ask, this might not be the last really good/great record of the band's catalog (Holland and Love You are both highly acclaimed among various different sects of the band's fanbase), but it certainly marks an end to their so-called "golden years", and with that, the beginning of an agonizingly slow downfall that would plague most of the band's remaining career. With that in mind, the finality of tracks like "'Til I Die" may just hit a little bit closer to home.



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3.9
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Comments:Add a Comment 
TheLongShot
May 15th 2017


865 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

I know I suck "Surf's Up"'s dick a lot in this, but..."'Til I Die" is my favorite Beach Boys song so fight me

zoso33
May 15th 2017


552 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

epic LP

SandwichBubble
May 15th 2017


12327 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

"the last three songs outclass everything else on the record so heavily" | N O



Lovely review besides that

Digging: Dirt - Never Mind Dirt - Here's the Bollocks

Divaman
May 15th 2017


7012 Comments


So basically the review summary for this one could just as well have been "Eff Mike Love! And Al Jardine too." Heh heh. Anyway, nice review.

Digging: Malfet - The Way to Avalon

wham49
May 15th 2017


5442 Comments


one of my fave BB albums, darker, not always bubblegum crap

TheLongShot
May 15th 2017


865 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Thing is, I do dig the Carl Wilson songs, but man I think they benefit sooooo much from Desper's darker production. I think the BW songs would have been outstanding with or without Desper's touch, though it certainly helped

TheLongShot
May 15th 2017


865 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

"Eff Mike Love! And Al Jardine too."



Jardine's great when he's not trying too hard to be environmentally conscious. Hell of an underrated musician/singer

theNateman
May 15th 2017


3807 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I love this album. I need it on vinyl so badly.

TheLongShot
May 15th 2017


865 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

"I love this album. I need it on vinyl so badly."



First Boys record I owned on vinyl, don't regret that purchase one bit

theNateman
May 15th 2017


3807 Comments

Album Rating: 4.5

I've seen beat up copies in secondhand shops all over, but none have looked playable so far. makes me sad.

Frippertronics
Staff Reviewer
August 12th 2018


19409 Comments

Album Rating: 4.1

just finally read this and while it's great, the bit about Dennis' songs not being accepted is false



Fourth of July and Wouldn't It Be Nice (To Live Again) were pulled because Dennis felt it was wrong to not only dedicate a whole third of the album to Smile material, but to rely so heavily on Brian's old songs due to his own reluctance to present new material to the band. He saw it as them mooching off Brian's talents, and wanted no part of it - therefore, his songs and overall presence were practically erased.

TheLongShot
August 14th 2018


865 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Part of it was also due to Dennis apparently wanting "Wouldn't It Be Nice (To Live Again)" to be the album closer, so there was some stubbornness on his end as well. You're right in that it wasn't nearly as much due to Rieley's influence as I inferred in this review, though.

Frippertronics
Staff Reviewer
August 14th 2018


19409 Comments

Album Rating: 4.1

admittedly, either Surf's Up or WIBN would've been great closers

PunchforPunch
July 25th 2019


7085 Comments

Album Rating: 3.5

Unbending never ending tablets of time

Record all the yearning

Sabrutin
November 23rd 2019


7210 Comments


Long Promised Road is so great, that middle part always gets me.

ArsMoriendi
January 10th 2020


31871 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Mike Love singing about protecting the ocean? MEH



Brian Wilson singing about taking care of your feet? WHOO

Digging: Depeche Mode - Music for the Masses

ArsMoriendi
January 13th 2020


31871 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Is it just me or is Student Demonstration Time terrible



Might be the worst song from their 66-71 run

Frippertronics
Staff Reviewer
January 13th 2020


19409 Comments

Album Rating: 4.1

it's more or less agreed upon it's not good

Frippertronics
Staff Reviewer
January 13th 2020


19409 Comments

Album Rating: 4.1

listen to the songs Dennis kept off the album (Wouldn't It Be Nice to Live Again and Fourth of July)



a big box set containing material from Sunflower and this along with outtakes, sessions and live material is coming this year so this year is going to be a very fruitful one for fans

ArsMoriendi
January 13th 2020


31871 Comments

Album Rating: 4.0

Listening to Wouldn't It Be Nice to Live Again and it's good so far, but idk not amazing



My faves on here are probably Feel Flows, A Day in the Life of a Tree, and Surf's Up



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