What’s this? The Beach Boys? Everybody knows them! What are they doing here?
Sure, everyone knows their 60s hits, maybe even Rock and Roll Music or Kokomo. But how many know any of their amazing string of albums from 1968-1973? Seven straight pop gems that made them superstars in England, but a forgotten entity in the U.S. Wild Honey, Friends, 20-20, Sunflower, Carl & The Passions, Holland. Every one of those albums is a superior musical experience to their earlier albums outside of Pet Sounds.
The crowning jewel of this run was 1971’s Surf’s Up. From its evocative cover (completely removed from their surfing roots) to the final chords of the title track, this is a pop masterpiece nearly on par with their classic Pet Sounds (the best pop album ever, IMO). Unlike most pop hits of the time or their 60s material, there are almost no simple boy/girl songs. Instead, it is full of introspection or politically charged lyrics, beginning with the anti-pollution Don’t Go Near the Water. This is followed with one of Carl Wilson’s first solo composition and one of the Beach Boys’ most beautiful songs ever, Long Promised Road, an reflective look at the roadblocks our past throws up as we try to push forward to our future.
Following the unimpressive Take a Load Off Your Feet is yet another stunning ballad, Disney Girls (1957), this one being Bruce Johnston’s first solo composition and the only love song on the album. It starts off with the pleasant verses and trademark Beach Boy harmonies until the bridge, where unusual chord changes take the song on an unexpected twist. Side One ends with Student Demonstration Time, essentially a rewrite of Riot in Cell Block #9, and the only rocker on the album. Mike Love’s lyrics about both race riots and anti-war demonstrations happening at the time, culminating in the infamous Kent State riot that resulted in four students killed by police. It also contains this powerful line: The pen is mightier than the sword, but no match for a gun.
Side Two opens with Feel Flows, another Carl Wilson gem with some of the most haunting harmonies I’ve ever heard on a rock record. The lyrics are more about sound rather than meaning and match the music perfectly at evoking a melancholy yet hopeful mood. Al Jardine’s Looking at Tomorrow is a brief but brilliant acoustic piece about the hopelessness of living on welfare while trying to find a job beyond sweeping floors.
Next is Brian Wilson’s A Day in the Life of a Tree, another anti-pollution song. It is both ingenious and bizarre in its arrangement, a song that takes several listens to appreciate. The vocalist is Jack Reiley, the band’s manager at the time, who, legend has it, was tricked by Brian into singing it due to the tone in his voice.
The final two songs, ‘Til I Die and Surf’s Up are two of the most beautiful songs you’ve probably never heard if you’re not a Beach Boys fanatic. The first is one of Brian’s few songs for which he wrote both lyrics and music and is about death and hopelessness. Despite the theme, the unexpected minor/major chord progressions and shimmering harmonies remind me more of someone facing death with a positive attitude. It’s a song that I will sometimes play five or six times in a row simply to let it wash over me.
The title track comes from the infamous Smile sessions in 1967 (the Beach Boys’ equivalent of Sgt. Pepper that was not released until about 2015). It’s a song about spiritual awakening and full of optimism and hope, featuring poetic lyrics by Van Dyke Parks. The song itself is far too complex to have ever been a pop hit with its multiple time shifts, dense choral arrangement, unusual melodies, and subtle instrumentation. For me, this is not just the penultimate Beach Boys song, but possibly the greatest pop song of the rock era, one that would make even George Gershwin or Irving Berlin sit up and take notice.
If you decide to pull this up on Spotify or Amazon Prime, be prepared to listen several times to most of the songs to take in the full beauty of the album. Most are not easy listening, one-time plays, but require time to absorb.