by Jon Hunt
The Beach Boys, That’s Why God Made The Radio (Capitol Records)
Let’s get this out of the way immediately: There is nothing “cool” whatsoever on That’s Why God Made The Radio. If you’re showing up to the new Beach Boys record with visions of Pet Sounds or Smile dancing in your head, let me relieve you of that thought: this is not those records. This is not an avant-garde masterpiece you can feel good about playing for your hipster friends. “Hey, you didn’t know they were cool? Oh, man, I’ve been into them forever. Listen to this…”
But let me avail you of a little truth: those records were only ever coincidentally cool in the first place. They sprang out of the head of lead songwriter Brian Wilson (trying quite consciously to write “hip” music) into a world where meticulously-arranged chamber pop was the sound du jour, at least in the UK where people were, you know, sophisticated. And it worked. Totally accidentally.
The real Brian Wilson has always been, from the moment he started making music, a colossal cornball. And to truly enjoy the sound of the Beach Boys in general and That’s Why God Made The Radio specifically, you have to relieve yourself of the notion that cool even matters, or has ever mattered. The heart and soul of the Beach Boys sound has always had its roots in stuff you probably think is cheesy. But Brian Wilson is such a remarkable songwriter and arranger that he’s able to transform stuff that, in the hands of lesser songwriters, would be at best pretty, and at worst the most abysmal elevator music ever. The corn doesn’t matter a jot. The songs do.
Take, for example, an album like Friends. Long a Beach Boys fan favorite, Friends was seen as unbelievably square when it arrived in 1968, in a world in love with throbbing, turgid fuzztone heaviosity. Far from moving with the times, Friends was a retreat — a quiet, hushed little record with lyrics about how great it was to have friends (“I talked your folks out of making you cut off your hair”) and how great having babies was and even directions to Brian Wilson’s house. It couldn’t have been more appallingly out of touch with the time it arrived in.
Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, Friends is a lovely record, one of the Beach Boys’ best. And we can accord it a kind of posthumous cool, too — here’s a band so moving to the sound of its own drummer it didn’t give a rat’s ass how out of touch it was. But at the time, Friends was seen as nothing more than a totally L-7 failure by the general public.
The same goes, kinda, for That’s Why God Made The Radio. It’s a completely square album. It sounds, to be perfectly fair and objective, like a work of pure middle-of-the-road Adult Contemporary music. There’s a decidedly uncool Caribbean-by-way-of-southern-Florida thing that permeates this thing, from the über-clean production style to the acoustic guitar “touches” to the ever-present conga fills. It lives firmly in the same sonic ocean as yacht rock – or even worse, the un-smooth sounds of Jimmy Buffett. It’s the kind of thing your mom probably likes. It’s an album without a beard. It’s unhip as hell.
My point is, though: who gives a shit? That’s Why God is absolutely chock-full of some of the best tunes of the band’s entire career — their best going back at least to 1977′s Love You. And the last three songs on the record are absolutely on a par with the best songs on Pet Sounds, meaning they’re right up there with the heartbreaking melancholy of “Caroline, No” or “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times,” I kid you not. Sure, they virtually all come wrapped in an unbelievably unhip wrapper – but it ultimately doesn’t matter a whit.
It’s one of those records where even the bad songs are still pretty great. I absolutely defy you to dislike the on-the-surface-pretty-awful “Spring Vacation” (lyric: “Hey, what’s it to ya?/ Hallelujah!”) after listening to it, say, five or six times. You want to dislike it. It’s just the kind of thing you feel like you should dislike — the sort of comfortable shuffle that’s a million miles off from funk, the clinical-clean guitar solo, the autotuned vocals. But tell me how you feel when you wake up singing it at 3AM, or when you start to actually skip to the song when you’re listening to the record.
There’s a ton of stuff on here like that. Brian Wilson’s totally baffling “The Private Life of Bill and Sue,” a Caribbean-influenced song about reality television (!) is a great example – it’s got a marvelous chorus with some breathtaking harmonies that totally overcomes the bizarre concept. And I adore “Beaches In Mind,” which is the kind of completely stupid “fun in the sun” lyric the band’s sported since the early 60s and should by all intents and purposes sound ridiculous coming from a group of 70-year-old men, but which sports such an infectious joy and a marvelously dumb chorus that makes it all worthwhile.
Of course, there’s a few songs that are just plain old great, such as the title track/single, a sumptuous tribute to the airwaves (sample lyric: “It’s paradise when I/lift up my antenna” – that’s so insane it’s genius!) or the stunning, tympani-driven “Strange World.” And the whole album culminates in a mini-suite made up of three complex, multipart songs – the heartbreakingly gorgeous “From There To Back Again,” the devastating “Pacific Coast Highway” and the absolutely apocalyptic “Summer’s Gone” – that are so achingly beautiful you’ll fall over. They’re an absolutely heartfelt ode to growing old and saying goodbye, and if you’re not in tears by the time the rain starts pouring at the end of the record, you have no heart. And the entire record is stuffed to bursting with memorable hooks and unbelievable choruses – listen to the clap-driven “Isn’t It Time” for the best of ‘em.
Also: we gotta talk about the singing for a minute. The Beach Boys are, of course, known for their distinctive vocal sound, part of which was the so-called “genetic blend” caused by the collusion of the Bros. Wilson: Dennis, Carl and Brian (and cousin Mike Love). Sadly, Wilsons C. and D. aren’t with us anymore — and the two others have ripped the hell out of their voices through substance abuse (Brian) and years on the road (Mike). So it’s a different Beach Boys we hear on That’s Why God, but a no less interesting one – Al Jardine still sounds like he’s 15 years old, of course, and he and Bruce Johnston’s un-ruined voices manage to buoy the harmonies marvelously. And the world-weariness of Brian’s voice gives everything a kind of twilit sadness, a grit and honesty that belies the gleeful subject matter.
There’s gonna be people who are turned off by the production on this thing, no matter how great the songs are. Slick doesn’t even begin to describe it. Anal retentive comes close. Every single note is autotuned within an inch of its life. Super-obvious midi instruments pop up everywhere. Brian and co-producer Joe Thomas (the man behind Brian’s worst solo album, Imagination) have clearly spent the last couple years wasting away in Margaritaville, too – every ridiculous afro-Caribbean touch you’ve learned to hate is present in force, from the stuttery guitar to the high tom fills to xylophone and steel drum. Gone are the cool moments like the shout in the middle of “Here Today” on Pet Sounds – every mistake, every error, every little human touch has been surgically removed. I have no ear for it, but I bet it’s brickwalled, too, just for the final hoorah.
Eh. My final word is this: if you’re able to overlook the production – if you’re able to disconnect the part of your brain that decides whether something is hip or not hip and makes it matter at all – you’re probably going to love That’s Why God Made The Radio. It’s a record of modest but impeccable charms, terrific hooks and songs that will linger in your head whether you want ‘em to or not. And one or two absolutely transcendent moments that stand with the best stuff the band has ever done. And that alone makes it pretty goddamn cool.