By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
After Johnny Cash made a comeback in the ‘90s, a cottage industry sprang up around aging artists putting out stripped-down albums in which they wrestle with their own impending mortality.
Off the top of my head, everyone including Neil Diamond, Tom Jones, John Mellencamp and Glen Campbell released albums like this in recent years, though I’m not convinced there’s a statistically significant difference between Tom Jones and Neil Diamond.
So the fact that T. Bone Burnett or Rick Rubin wasn’t hired to strip the Beach Boys down to some rootsy pedal-steel guitar and tasteful mandolin while they sing lyrics inspired by Emily Dickinson poetry is refreshing, if not also somewhat disappointing. Because that sounds pretty good actually.
Instead for “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” their first album that isn’t some half-baked scheme cooked up by Mike “Quick Money” Love in decades, what’s left of the original Beach Boys mostly party like it’s 1964 and the waves are strong and the ravages of time haven’t had their way with them.
At 69 years old, Brian Wilson is the only one of the three original Wilson brothers still alive, and the new album coincides with the band’s 50th anniversary reunion tour that bring him together with founding members Love, Al Jardine, David Marks and long-time member Bruce Johnston. Wilson produced and co-wrote every song on the album except one, and the majority of the lyrics tick off the early-career Beach Boys motifs on which they’ve staked their brand in recent decades: cars, beaches, girls, beaches, more cars.
However, just when you think the album is utterly disposable, it takes a sudden turn toward melancholy and regret.
The title track and lead single lays out the template for most of the album, a self-conscious look back to the past and the good times therein, back when the Beach Boys were on the radio and the baby boomers were inventing youth culture. The actual history of the Beach Boys, rife with mental illness, squandered genius, tragic deaths and voluminous lawsuits, doesn’t square with such rosy nostalgia, of course, but that’s not as fun.
But is this fun?
There’s a queasy aspect to the self-conscious “beach” songs on this album, as if Wilson can’t quite convince himself either. In many places the Boys’ voices have been digitally sweetened to smooth out the rough parts, and while the production is slick, there’s also a dinky quality to it.
“Isn’t It Time” has some lovely vocal melodies, but the song itself plods along, never going anywhere. Similarly, “Shelter” is an effective chorus in search of a better song. “Spring Vacation” contains a convincing line about making “easy money” and the less convincing groaner: “Happier now, look where life finds us / Singing our songs is enough reason/ Harmony boys is what we believe in / Some said it wouldn’t last / All we can say is we’re still having a blast.”
In the second half of the album we have a song that Mike Love had been saving for a solo album that no one has clamored for since the late ‘70s, and a couple more forgettable nostalgia-bait tunes until the album takes a startling turn toward the poignant. The album closes with a mini-suite of three songs more similar to “Smile” than “Surfin Safari.”
“From There to Back Again” is structured like one of Wilson’s pocket symphonies with distinctive sections bleeding into one another as a man plan a trip down memory lane in a last-ditch effort to save a dying relationship. Jardine, handling lead vocals, asks “Why we don’t feel the way we used to anymore?”
On the short, hymn-like “Pacific Coast Highway” that follows, Wilson sings, “Sometimes I realize my days are getting on / Sometimes I realize it’s time to move along / And I want to go home / Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say.”
“Summer’s Gone” closes the album and Wilson reportedly wanted it to be the last Beach Boys song ever. If that winds up being the case, it’s a fine ending. The mild, dreamy tone plays like a sequel to “Til I Die,” a song from 1971’s “Surfs Up” that Wilson wrote during a bout of depression on which he sang about being a “cork on the ocean” and a “leaf on a windy day” until the day he dies.
“Summer’s Gone” is little more than soft percussion, oboe and strings slowly fading to ocean sounds. Wilson sings, “I’m gonna sit and watch the waves / We laugh, we cry / We live and die / And dream about our yesterdays.”
Turns out the Beach Boys didn’t need any help making a spare, haunting reflection on mortality after all.