The Beach Boys are all about contradictions. The nicer word would be “juxtapositions,” but let’s just call it what it is. Their carefree early songs about surfing, cars, and girls hid the Wilson brothers’ chaotic upbringing for a time, and were eventually offset by band turmoil and clashing personalities. The term creative differences would be an understatement, no matter how many times a day Mike Love mediated or how many songs they wrote about the Maharishi (a figure who was arguably more contradictory than his most famous disciples). Even when their more introspective later work delved into heavier topics, it was done so through the filter of Brian Wilson’s lush wall of sound and the chipper, full-bodied instrumentation of studio musicians such as The Wrecking Crew. And their music was all the better for it — because contradictions are fascinating, and we’re all guilty of them.
That’s Why God Made The Radio, The Beach Boys’ thirtieth studio album (and first in sixteen years) shows the two sides of the band through a compelling tonal split. Structurally, it’s most similar to 1965′s Today!, characterized by one side of sunny hits and a second of pining ballads. But where the source of that record’s melancholia was strictly romance, Radio‘s dread comes from someplace far more frightening: age.
“Why don’t we feel the way we used to anymore?” asks Al Jardine in “From There To Back Again”, the first song in the album’s closing mini-suite of nostalgia vanished. It dissolves into “Pacific Coast Highway”, which, in under two minutes, captures Wilson at his most emotionally naked (“Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say/ My life, I’m better off alone”). Subtle flourishes of strings and plodding piano drive the song into the darkening horizon before closing track “Summer’s Gone” rises with lonely chimes and the gentle creak of an oboe. “Summer’s gone/ I’m gonna’ sit and watch the waves/ We laugh, we cry/ We live and die and dream about our yesterdays,” sighs Wilson backed by his bandmates, whose harmonies sound surprisingly youthful considering the youngest vocalist is pushing 70. Their eternal pipes are overtaken by the ripple of a wave as the record ends, aptly marrying beach imagery with resignation for what may very well be The Beach Boys’ final statement to the world as a full band. It’s a funeral dirge full of majesty, and it makes the sunnier first two-thirds of the album more tragic, even if that wasn’t their intent. What’s wild is that it was also co-written with New Jersey rocker Jon Bon Jovi, in what will undoubtedly go down as another obscure collaboration in the The Beach Boys’ repertoire.
Other than the opening vocal chant of “Think About The Days” hinting at the downtrodden reflection to come (think a sadder version of “Our Prayer”), the bulk of That’s Why God Made The Radio concerns itself with capturing the harmony, both vocal and communal, that was the boon of The Beach Boys’ earlier work. And it accomplishes this more successfully than any of the group’s albums since 1978. “Isn’t It Time” bounces along with sprightly ukulele and piano as the vocal triumvirate of Wilson, Jardine, and Love trade off verses, whereas the romantic testament “Shelter” anchors the higher registers of Wilson and longtime Beach Boys sideman Jeff Foskett with harpsichord and playful trombone. It’s a far cry from the palatial arrangements of Pet Sounds, but it’s still nice to see the band moving away from the cheesy keyboards and tinny drum machines of albums like Summer In Paradise.
Elsewhere, “Spring Vacation”, “Daybreak Over The Ocean”, and “Beaches In Mind” all merely chronicle good times, whether it be within a relationship or the band itself. At first, it’s easy to dismiss the simple lyrics and overproduction as pure syrup, but think about the darker implications of what’s not being said. When Love sings, “As for the past, it’s all behind us/ Happier now, look where life finds us,” in “Spring Vacation”, we know that’s not completely true, especially given Wilson’s panicked demeanor at recent live performances and the song’s later lyric of “easy money” (not to mention the record’s closing moments). While the surviving original members of The Beach Boys most likely didn’t reunite purely for a paycheck, it’s hard to believe that didn’t play a large factor.
But this optimistic illusion has always been a huge part of who they are. The Beach Boys may not have surfed (save for the late Dennis Wilson), but they sure wrote some great songs about it. They may not have played their own instruments on their latest album as originally promised (except for some inspired riffage from David Marks), but they still feel like a true band. And while That’s Why God Made The Radio may not be in the same league as SMiLE or Pet Sounds, it’s an immensely satisfying and interesting outing from a group long thought to have transformed into a living jukebox. It’s better than it has any right to be, and that’s a wonderful contradiction in itself.
Essential Tracks: “From There To Back Again”, “Pacific Coast Highway”, “Summer’s Gone”, and “Isn’t It Time”