The new album, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” turns out to be not horrible. To be, in fact, pretty good, and in places, a lot better than that.
That’s what it is. What it isn’t, I’m sorry to say, is a return to the Brian Wilson-led band’s classic form, where BW reiigned as writer, arranger, producer, vocal arranger, lead performer, mixer and more. Consider the vast teams of songwriters hovering over the tunes with B. Wilson’s signature at the top of the credits. And how did they get those weathered voices to sound so perfectly boyish? I’m not exactly sure, but here’s a video of the late Mister Rogers apparently singing (and occasionally harmonizing with himself two times over) in a song constructed from a lot of unrelated clips of him talking.
What can’t audio technology do these days? Nearly as much as musically elite Brian Wilson aficionados can do when they need to make a record sound just like Brian had actually produced it. Or so I hear.
So why do I keep listening to it? And why do so many of the songs — Four of them. Okay, five of them. Okay, possibly six) sound so moving to me?
Because some of these songs are really good. And even the ones that top out, writing-wise, as only sort of not as awful as they could have been, come with twists — a perfect melodic hook, an irresistible tangle of hamony, however it’s created, that grab on and won’t let go. (follow the jump!)
And then you’ve got four, arguably five, songs that really do seem drawn from the most hidden recesses of Brian Wilson’s spirit. The dark, tender places where the unsinkable young man wanders, wounded and sad, but still drawn to the lights in the distance.
Buy this album. Ignore the songs about doin’ it just like yesterday; skip past the ones where sun rhymes with fun; where baby is implored to come back; where new generations are being made to feel the, ahem, good vibrations. Listen for the place where melancholy blossoms into harmony. Where the wordless sighs on the “Our Prayer”-like intro piece, “Think About the Days,” shine down like sun through the bowers, only to reveal the great distance between a young man’s dreams and the older man’s reality. The more you know about the ugliness looming just beneath the Beach Boys’ relentlessly sunny exterior the more heart-rending it becomes.
How does such an emotionally dysfunctional, at times murderously bitter and litigious crowd even begin to make it through half a century of very public horrors without people getting hip to them? Get into the swing of the title track, wait for the chorus to hit and…oh, yes. That stunning colliision of spiraling melody, unlikely modulations and harmonies so elegant that the light behind the dial does take on a divine sort of glow. And then the lyrics’ worshipful take on pop music and the medium that made it a world-changing force: “It’s paradise when I/Lift up my antennae/Receiving your signal like prayer…” Nothing cynical or phony about that. Especially when you remember the weird beauty of Brian’s “Mt. Vernon and Fairway” suite in 1973, and all those chants about the magic transister radio. Then you’ve got that waltzing rhythm, and the Four Freshman-style vocals. . .if we’re not listening to primo Brian Wilson right here, then we’ve got one of the best simulations. Or perhaps best expansions upon his original germ-of-an-idea. (I’m not crazy about that bullshit key change that comes at 2:20 (right at the “whole new generation” part, of course), nor the anti-climactic synth drum thud that coulda been a real climax if they’d rolled out the timpani or even a fucking Sparklett’s jug (calling Hal Blaine, stat!)
Wait, am I beginning to contradict what I said earlier? Er, well…fuck it. Because now “Isn’t It Time” is playing, and that simple, upbeat melody (written by Brian? Mike? Co-producer Joe Thomas or the mysterious J Peterik and/or L Mills?) has moved into my head, where it will remain forever. See what I mean? You want to hate this song, from its millionth-rewrite-of-“Do It Again” lyrics to the really amateurish attempt at auto-tuning that is only too screamingly obvious, even to my not-all-that-sensitive-to-these-things ears. Is it that hard to get it right, mysterious digi-manipulators? I don’t think it is. But if there’s another hallmark to the Beach Boys (from 1976 onward, anyway) it’s the shamless cuttting of corners. And yes, Brian can be a lazy, naughty boy, too.
“Spring Vacation” is one of those less-said-the-better deals, while “The Private Life of Bill and Sue,” a not-quite-where-it-needs-to-be satire of reality shows boasts an opening couplet that I’d bet anything popped straight out of Brian Wilson’s prankish-but-guileless mind: “The private life of Bill and Sue/Can you dig what I’m telling you?” And the thing is, you can dig it. Or at least I can, because that’s exactly how he talks in real life. I can’t vouch for the rest of the song, especially its Jimmy Buffet-like Caribbean overtrones, up to and including steel drums. Steel drums. And then another Brian-like lyric pops up: (“Sometimes life can be strange/Maybe we’re just looking for a change”) and then I’m tickled again and feeling that much more pissed off about the fruity rum-and-umbrella concoction this beautifully quirky song fell into. Yuck.
So some songs suck. No surprise.
What is surprising, however, is the last four songs of the album. All Brian Wilson songs, with only Joe Thomas as co-writer (except for one, which also features Jon Bon Jovi, of all New Jerseyans), these tunes probably date back a ways — maybe all the way to the Thomas co-produced “Imagination” sessions in 1997 and 1998. The final three are intended as a mini-suite, with little interstitial musical threads to tie them together. But really, the mood begins with “Strange World,” a sweet, very Brian set of observations on life that begin with a sad glance at the homeless gathered on Santa Monica pier (“The uninvited who lost their way. . .“), then drifts through the county fair, a lazy bike ride (Ching-ching! goes the bell, a nod to “You Still Believe in Me”) and simply in being with someone you love. The simple moments where the meaning resides, where the strange world noted in the title begins to makesome sense. “It’s a strange world, there’s nothing to it,” Brian sings. “A strange world, I’m getting through it.”
See where this is headed? Days spin from one to the next, the years melt away, and suddenly you’re 70, and the sun is fast fading into the horizon. Brian’s next song, the gorgeously arranged “There and Back Again,” (great harmonies, those moody guitar runs, a nice four-beat pause, etc) digs deeper, so what starts as a plea to resume an old love affair (“Why don’t we feel the way we used to anymore?…”) follows Brian to the core of his existence (“Back where you belong, our favorite song/Won’t you listen?”) before acknowledging, finally, that time takes things you can never get back. “Through the common sense of it all/We had a lot to live, we gave it all.”
“There and…” takes one last spin through past — via an upbeat Bachrach-like coda of harmony and whistles, then a lucious tide of voices descend to the opening note of “Pacific Coast Highway,” in which Brian, drivin
g alone down the California shore, owns up to who he really is: An aging loner who knows his best days are gone. “Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say,” he admits, and yet what could be the darkest kind of realization instead ends up feeling bittersweet. The “strange world” ends up being pretty logical, once you set yourself in the context of nature’s irrefutable patterns. “Driving down Pacific Coast out on Highway One, the setting sun/Goodbye.”
Then comes the final word: “Summer’s Gone,” A gentle meditation on life, aging and acceptance. Compare it to “Caroline, No,” if you focus on the harpsichord, flutes, percussion and sad lilt in the music. If this is to be the Beach Boys’ last song, it would be the perfect final word. For no matter how spare the lyrics might be, it’s the feeling in Brian’s voice, and the elegant backing voices (however they’re constructed) that tell you everything you need to know. “Old friends have gone,” he sings. “The nights grow cold/It’s time to go.” The signs are everywhere: in the end of the day, in the blanket of rain covering the beach, in the waves that seem less like a call to adventure than pages turning, the final chapter leafing steadily to the end.
“Summer’s gone/It’s finally sinking in.”
Fifty years later, it feels just about right. Forget about the terrors and the horrors and think only about the music. No deaths, no lawsuits, no fighting, no impossibly awful records. Just the sound of those voices, the darkness just behind but the light bursting through. They’ve created a lot of it over the decades, most of the best of it straight from the heart and soul of Brian Wilson. He paid a steep price for the priviege, but somehow came out as the last man standing; the beacon that had sent them on their way, and reappears at the end of the line to guide the band — his band — back home.
“We laugh, we cry/We live then die/And dream about our yesterdays.”
He’s got that dreamy tone in his voice again, his cousin steps up with his reassuring baritone, the music fades and all that remains is the rain on the beach. The forces of nature, the voice of God. On the radio, and everywhere else, too.