The irony of the Beach Boys’ tragedy has made that tragedy all the more painful. For several generations of people around the world, the band’s vey name has been synonymous with good ol’ fashioned fun in the sun, of fresh-faced, pre-Vietnam American innocence. Even their more crestfallen later work was defined by a sweet, nostalgic ache. But the band’s tale of abuse, addiction, mental illness, dubious associations, premature deaths, and ugly lawsuits is by now almost as familiar as “California Girls”.
At the center of it all, of course, has been Brian Wilson. In terms of public portrayal, he has gone from yet another 1960s acid casualty to helpless, exploited pawn in the games of would-be therapists and businessmen, to damaged but ultimately triumphant survivor. Everybody wished for a happy ending for Brian. And, in the last decade, from his 2004 resurrection of Smile to his well-received new material and tours, they seem to have gotten it.
The Beach Boys, however, are another story. It’s surely not so simple, but if Brian Wilson was the hero, his former band, led by Wilson’s cousin Mike Love, has been the villain. Marginalizing the mentally ill Wilson only to rope him back in to ensure record label and fan interest, arranging outlandish collaborations with the Fat Boys, suing Wilson for releasing Smile without them, turning into a casino-bound lounge act, and “Kokomo” are only the most heinous of the Love-led Beach Boys’ crimes.
So this 50th Anniversary reunion of Wilson, Love, and the other surviving ‘60s-era Beach Boys is at once incredible and suspect. It seems like an improbable opportunity to right the ship for posterity, yet it could just as well send the ship sputtering to the bottom for good.
That’s Why God Made the Radio, at least, swings the balance toward the former. This result is not least due to the band’s approach. They didn’t pour the contemporary producers and songwriting hacks into the studio. Wilson produced, and though the list of purported extra musicians is long, they are mostly orchestra players and members of Wilson’s regular backing band. Joining Wilson and lifers Love and Bruce Johnston are Al Jardine, who has not performed with the band since 1998, and guitarist David Marks, an important but oft-forgotten member whose previous album with the band was Little Deuce Couple in 1963. Wilson co-wrote all but one of the 12 tracks, working primarily with familiar collaborator Joe Thomas.
That’s Why God Made the Radio plays out not unlike the late ‘60s/‘70s-era Beach Boys albums, such as Friends and Surf’s Up that belatedly have become cult favorites. It starts off pretty strong, is nearly derailed by a couple untenable duds, and delivers a major Brian Wilson payoff at the end.
After the sweet, ponderous overture “Think About the Times”, the title track and first single is a perfectly likable track whose strong harmonies save it from a plodding arrangement and trite lyrics. Weaker, though, are the songs that directly address the band’s make-up and reunion. “Isn’t It Time” is a perky, sincere doo-wop number, but “Spring Vacation” and especially “Beaches In Mind” are pure cruise-ship fare. “As for the past / It’s all behind us,” Love sings on “Spring Vacation”, “Happier now / Look where love finds us”. Despite those buoyant harmonies, though, it’s tough to discern any real meaning in his voice.
When Wilson stops trying to bring back the good times and just does his own thing, he delivers some gems. The calypso-tinged “The Private Life of Bill and Sue” is a bemused and surprisingly cutting look reality television, and features a classic, soaring, harmony-laden chorus that is as blissful as anything the band have done. Questions about Auto-Tune and studio trickery have inevitably abounded. The Boys, though, most of whom are about 70, can still hit those harmonies like no one else. Only Jardine’s voice retains the spunky, boyish tone of the band’s heyday, but everyone is in tune most of the time, and it sounds natural. Wilson’s croon, thicker and reedier now, is still a wonderful instrument.
That’s Why God Made the Radio‘s real payoff comes in the form of the four-song suite that closes the album. “Strange World” is a beautiful piano ballad complete with Pet Sounds-like tympani and castanets. Jardine carries the ponderous, swooning “From There to Back Again” as the harmonies swirl around him like the sun itself. The final pair of songs is simply stunning. “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone” are introspective, genuinely sad meditations that reveal the counterpoint to the fun’n'sun banter that’s come before. “My life / I’m better off alone,” sings Wilson on “Pacific Coast Highway”, as the band wish him “goodbye”. It’s a stunning moment, and it embodies the melancholy and ache that have always marked Wilson’s greatness. “Summer’s Gone” is a haunting, touching denouement. “Summer’s Gone,” Wilson sings, “It’s finally sinkin’ in…We laugh and cry / We live and die / And dream about our yesterdays,” as the harmonies and piano and strings weep. For a man whose band is synonymous with the warmest season, the symbolism is striking.
As a whole, That’s Why God Made the Radio is not a top-tier Beach Boys album. But it’s neither a reach nor hyperbole to say this final suite is among the strongest, most affecting music Wilson has ever recorded. It seems right that his old bandmates are a part of it.