The Beach Boys
Reprise/Brother RS 6453
Released: July 1971
Chart Peak: #29
Weeks Charted: 17
I've been waiting impatiently for this record since Sunflower and the small letdown I feel could be the other side of that impatience: the wish that they could have kept it a little longer to make it perfect. In this case that would not be a matter of production (why not expect technical perfection from a group that began producing itself in the early Sixties -- that handles the studio with such mastery?), but rather of waiting for the material to even out in quality. (Perhaps drummer Dennis Wilson's absence as songwriter -- and, because of a hand injury, on five of the ten cuts -- contributes to this flaw; Wilson wrote "Forever," on Sunflower, an incredibly beautiful piece.)
Still, I recall my own first reaction to Sunflower; some cuts at first seemed too thin, too light. ("Deirdre," for instance, which later became a favorite of mine precisely for the cream-puff-thrown-in-the-machinery effect, and for Brian Wilson's occasional showbiz-Broadway flair.)
But the important thing about the Beach Boys is just this aspect of their music. The production is usually flawless and the melodies so frequently exquisite that one tends to hear, then listen for -- and finally dismiss it as -- surface. Yet the surface is manipulated so carefully and so brilliantly that (and here I am forced by a certain poverty of analogy to shift senses) it becomes hologrammatic. Cotton candy: bite into it and the pink fluff becomes more sugar on your tongue -- then, poof! -- mere aftertaste. Yet wait, there's more pink fluff inside the cone, and more, and more... (Not to mention the best aftertaste in the business.)
Wilson, Wilson, Wilson, Jardine, Love and Johnston form rock's only choir, and what one misses on Surf's Up are more of the incredible group vocals that have been equalled in power only by the Band. I'm thinking especially of "This Whole World," the most perfect example on the last album (aumdidit, aumdidit), but also of "Cottonfields" (so much more energy and emotion than Creedence's) on 20/20, and the slightly ragged but good-natured title-cut of Friends. And especially Wild Honey, the entire album.
Now there is an under-rated album, Wild Honey; it is surely the most even of their post-surfer LPs, and the last time they truly rocked their asses off, one cut after another. Capitol has scratched all their albums after '65, Pet Sounds and everything, including Wild Honey, that followed. But Wild Honey is a masterpiece. Sometimes the last thing I hear at night before falling asleep is from "Country Air," Carl holding that note ("Mother Nature, she fills my eyeyeyeyeyey") and rhyming it to the rooster's crow that begins the cut.
"Surf's Up" itself was to be the piece de resistance to Smile, that album that never was. Brian's collaboration with Van Dyke Parks. The song itself emerges out of the legend that withholding it so long created. (It had been performed once by Brian on piano, in 1967 on a Leonard Bernstein-bestows-his-blessing-on-rock television show, never to be heard again.) Is it as good as was breathlessly rumored by those who had heard the partial track? Well, yes. Simple as that -- well, not that simple. The production is ornate -- elephant calls melting into French horns and clarinets, percussion via housekeys slapped against a top-hat, and you name it -- yet never opaque.
It would have more than given a run to anything on Sergeant Pepper, which was the current competition, though an album full of these rich pastries might have been perhaps oppressive. Maugham said that you could only really look at a painting for a certain number of minutes. My guess is that there was one central musical concept on Smile, one sound, one brand new chord theretofore undiscovered and accessible only to the Wilson-Parks songwriting ear; to listen to this lost album might have been exhausting -- or, better, another visual analogy; blinding. That is what "Surf's Up" is, dazzling almost to pearl-blindness, from the diamond necklace in the first line to the muted lyrics of third and fourth stanzas, pausing for an extended pun:
Parks' lyrics make the most of the Beach Boys' obsession with the polished surface of their music: one is never unaware of the artistry in their construction, and you are tossed mercilessly from consent to technique, behind and before the scene, attention drawn to the song itself as an entity:
Like their very best music, it is Light(ness) itself, fragile and transparent as sunshine.
Surf's Up, the album, is almost a concept album (remember them?) in its near obsession with the subject of water (if not the Beach Boys, then who?); the last cut of Sunflower was "Cool Water," five minutes worth, and the first track here is "Don't Go Near the Water," by Al Jardine and Mike Love. It begins without much promise, a rather trite melody that reminds the ear of commercial jingles, but the chorus is imaginative. Jardine wails the third verse with rather more soul than is called for with a lyric like:
By the time we hear the original melody again, however, repeated with different words, it is rather lovable, and even the lyrics redeem themselves:
"Long Promised Road," the next cut, is with "Feel Flows" on side two, Carl Wilson's first solo composing effort, with lyrics by Jack Reiley, the group's publicist. It is, as they say in more auspicious reviews, an auspicious debut. Carl produced and played every track on "Long Promised Road," but it has none of the static feeling or self-indulgence one might expect from such megalomania. His vocal is gentle and displays superb rhythmic control, begins light and travels into a rocker without seeming to shift gears; Reiley's lyrics are quite fine.
"Take A Load Off Your Feet," with a too-thin melody, obvious production and some good but wasted solo vocals by Jardine and Brian Wilson.
For me, the best realized song on the entire record, aside from "Surf's Up," is "Disney Girls (1957)." In an album that takes lyrics as seriously as this one (they are for the first time enclosed with the record), Bruce Johnston's contribution is, without reservation, brilliant, the lyrics as accomplished in their way as are Parks'; understandably we are more surprised by Johnston's achievement. Nobody's going to do the Fifties this well for quite a while:
Unrestrained sentiment, be forewarned (the Beach Boys have never hidden the emotion in their music), but not without a painless funny edge:
Its placement on the record, and the understated group backing, lulls you for the last song on this side, "Student Demonstration Time," new lyrics by Mike Love to the old Coasters' hit, "Riot on Cell Block No. 9." Sometimes I get the feeling that, because for so long there was a hipper-than-thou dismissal of the group, they are now trying too hard and maybe unnecessarily to prove their credentials. It's great that they're doing political rallies and benefits, but I suspect the real reason they're being taken seriously again is their live performances, it is impossible to hear them, as I did last fall at the Whisky, and not be knocked out. Anyway, this song has some spectacular horn-playing (they currently travel with a ten-man section), superb crackling lead guitar by Carl, and a police siren or simulated siren that really does make it as an instrument, but the lyrics, with one exception:
strikes me as embarrassing. Somehow more generalized protest (Gaye's "What's Goin' On?") works for me, where this specific catalogue seems to trivialize the events themselves. In any case, I'm told this is the show-stopper at their current round of concerts, so chacun a...
Carl's "Feel Flows" opens side two; an excellently produced number, the highlight is a break with Charles Lloyd's flute that is incredibly good. The transition from this is a tantalizingly brief piano riff and Carl's guitar, sucked back into the song in a weird imploding warp. The reverse or forward echo works beautifully with Reiley's lyrics.
"Looking at Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)" is folkish, hyped up with phase distortion. It grows on you, but the guitar work is overdelicate, if that is the word. It's minor.
"A Day in the Life of a Tree" is reminiscent of "Wind Chimes" on Smiley Smile, with Brian on pipe and pump organ and lyricist Reiley the solo vocalist. At first it comes off as too somber, but one's ear ripens for it. The real treat is the "lord oh now I lay me down" chorus. This is another "ecology" thing, and even if I could get over the banal political position -- banal since audience and artist may be assumed to agree -- a world like "pollution" is a clichéd catchword for a lot of other clichés. The line in question seems better, for instance, when it is sung in the background by Van Dyke Parks, whose voice frequently gives lyrics a campy resonance:
Even so, it is hardly forgettable. Haunting, even.
Brian sings alone on "Till I Die," the last cut before "Surf's Up," but later the group joins in. "Till I Die" also has the disadvantage of meeting the ear first almost as a throwaway and then taking shape, listening after listening, inside the head. It is extremely moving.
This is a good album, probably as good as Sunflower, which is terrific, and which I've had six months more to listen to. It is certainly the most original in that it has contributed something purely its own. Perhaps because of the ecology theme, it is not as joyous. But it will do to keep the turntable warm until their next. (Myself, I hope it will be live, to show what they can do in concert.) They remain unique, and though they still promise more than they deliver, this group has delivered plenty throughout history. For that reason, they are perhaps still the most important -- and certainly the most "accomplished" -- of all American groups.
You can come home, guys, all is forgiven.
- Arthur Schmidt, Rolling Stone, 10/14/71.
The Beach Boys' new Surf's Up is a great album. I can't begin to document that claim with chapter and verse (though I could easily pick out several flaws in the album), the reason being that this is one of those infrequent pieces of work that remind us that the viscera are still very much in charge of subjective preference. The intellect can babble and nitpick around the edges all it wants, but the central fact isn't altered one iota -- this is a great album.
The title song, "Surf's Up," was written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks some years ago, but Brian refused until now to release it. It is a mindbender: its melodic structure is complex for a pop song -- and yet, oddly enough, it's hummable -- and its lyrics rush in where all but Captain Beefheart fear to tread. They are, in fact, vaguely like the poems of T. S. Eliot -- and like those Walt Kelly gives his Pogo characters to recite as well: they evoke fractured images, fragments of thought, one upon the other, piggy-back style. They keep reminding you that they are made out of language ("Canvass the town and brush the backdrop") and out of the imperfections of language as well, just as knotholes, under the right circumstances, become important to an interior wall. The message? It's about aging, about the music's ending, about going home (wherever that is) afterwards ("the laughs come hard in 'Auld Lang Syne'"), about the child being father to the man, and more, secondary themes superimposed here and there, the imagery refrangible, each listener left to filter out his own unique message. It is at once challenging and involving for the listener, and easy to listen to as well. It is probably the best song I've heard since "MacArthur Park" -- and keep in mind that it probably predates "MacArthur Park."
I don't mean to imply that the other songs in the album are in any sense fillers. Bruce Johnston's perceptive treatment of nostalgia, for instance -- "Disney Girls (1957)" -- deserves (though space forbids) a long and careful appraisal of its own. The instrumental arrangements are especially good, pleasing me more than any since Abbey Road. The Beach Boys' style has had its corners knocked off since the days of "I Get Around," but there are flashes of the old touch (a brilliant vocal treatment of "'Til I Die"), and the album leaves the overall impression that the group is still unique. Some of the songs have incomplete melodies, but again, the album itself seems incomplete. Some of the lyrics are childish, two of the melodies are borrowed from other songs, a couple of others remain obstinately unmusical. I don't care. It's a great album.
- Noel Coppage, Stereo Review, 12/71.
As an album following a resurge in popularIty in the Beach Boy, a series of sellout concerts and a lot of critical acclaim, this should be a monster seller. The various cuts justify it, ranging from a new recording based on the old track, "Surf's Up" to the oldie "Riot In Cell Block No. 9" redone as "Student Demonstration Time."
- Billboard, 1971.
Their worst since Friends, which just goes to show that making like a great group is as bad for your music as making like a buncha mystics. Except for the sophomoric "Student Demonstration Time," the songs on the first side are all right -- "Take a Load Off Your Feet" is worthy of Wild Honey and "Disney Girls (1957)" is worthy of Jack Jones's Greatest Hits -- but the pop impressionism of side two drags hither and yon. The dying words of a tree are delivered in an apt, gentle croak, but the legendary title opus is an utter failure even on its own woozy terms and there are several disasters from the guest lyricists -- Van Dyke Parks's wacked-out meandering is no better than Jack Reiley's. I'll trade you my copy for Surfin' Safari even up, and you'll be sorry. B-
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
Its title notwithstanding, this album has less to do with surfing than with the band coming to terms with aging and with changing audiences -- environmentalism shares space alongside the title track, a poignant, serious masterpiece of modern pop music. * * * *
- Bruce Eder, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
Surf's Up is the group's most interesting album and a fascinating puzzle, with contributions from all the Beach Boys as well as two of Brian's all-time best tunes, "Until I Die" and "Surf's Up," written with Van Dyke Parks and originally slated for Smile. * * * *
- Leland Rucker, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Like many Beach Boys albums, Surf's Up presents a difficult target to hit squarely, in terms of critical appreciation. Released in 1971, it was the work of a band being pulled apart by internal dissent and the slow eclipse of Brian Wilson's sanity.
The ambiguity starts with the first track. No sooner have you dismissed "Don't Go Near The Water" as ecological hand-wringing, then along comes Carl Wilson's "Long Promised Road," with its determination and choral beauty, halting derision in its tracks. The oceanic mysticism of "Feel Flows" is equally arresting.
There are certainly moments of sublime emotional clarity. The faux-naivety of "Take A Load Off Your Feet" is misconceived, but skip forward to the heartbreakingly nostalgic "Disney Girls (1957)" and you remember how it was to be ten years old. From another band it would be manipulative dross, but The Beach Boys at their best had a matchless gift for tapping into something larger than themselves.
The erratic, half-brilliant course continues throughout. "Student Demonstration Time," a Leiber and Stoller tune given new lyrics by Mike Love, tries to hit a raw nerve with its sneering R&B grind about civil rights, but misses. Likewise, oddity "A Day In The Life Of A Tree" -- though prettily melodic -- sounds more a product of psychosis than genius.
The star-swept loneliness of "Till I Die" and the crumbling majesty of the title track gives the album the superb conclusion it deserves.
- Jamie Dickson, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
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