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
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.
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.