For the last proper song on The Beach Boys Today, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys craft their most inventive and sublime track to date, "In the Back of My Mind".
For the last proper track on The Beach Boys Today!, Brian Wilson and the rest of the group don’t hold anything back. "In the Back of My Mind" is a huge step forward musically, lyrically, and production-wise, and even tucked away in the back of this album, the song has taken on an iconic status among fans and critics for being a true masterpiece.
It’s notable, then, that "In the Back of My Mind" was recorded in the same session as “Good to My Baby”, the Beach Boys Today! track that I discussed as sounding the most like the group's earlier music. In contrast, "In the Back of My Mind" really sounds like nothing they’ve ever done before, even with all the experimentation and sophistication we’ve previously seen on this album. Philip Lambert comments, “The chord progressions of ‘In The Back Of My Mind’ are virtually unprecedented in Brian’s previous work”, but it’s not just the chord progressions: the masterful lyrics from Brian Wilson and Mike Love, as well as Wilson’s sublime orchestral arrangement, are innovative in their own right.
The composition is certainly a good place to start, though. The structure of the song is very unusual, eschewing the standard verse/chorus formula for a sort of altered strophic form. Rather than a series of verses all ending with a recurring hook or refrain (as in, say, a typical Bob Dylan strophic song from the same time), "In the Back of My Mind" repeats two similar verses—each containing wildly varying melodic material—and then moves into a strange bridge section before returning to the verse. But this final verse changes the refrain into a melodramatic tag that leads into an orchestral fade out that sounds like the beginning of another song entirely. Inside this sprawling structure is the previously alluded to adventurous chord progression. The song revolves around F major, but takes liberties and pushes far outside of the key. This is especially true in the bridge, which has chromatically descending lines that all but completely erase the sense of functional tonality. The Beach Boys Today! has not been without its fair share of impressive chord changes, most notably on “Please Let Me Wonder” and “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)”, but what we find here is truly special. Jon Stebbins calls the song “a harbinger of things to come”, and when you look at songs like “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)” from 1966's Pet Sounds or “Wonderful” from the failed SMiLE project, it’s hard not to see their harmonic antecedents in "In the Back of My Mind".
Lyrically, the song continues the theme we’ve seen over and over again on The Beach Boys Today!: anxiety over what the future will bring. The narrator states in the opening line, “I’m blessed with everything” but admits by the end of the verse, “In the back of my mind, I still have my fears”. This cynicism runs throughout the song. In the bridge, he sings about trying to run away from these thoughts and convince himself that being with his love is for the best. At the end of the last verse, he asks, “What will I do if I leave her?” and confesses in the final lyric that this question will “Always be way in the back of my mind”. The musical change that follows this—the descent into the abyss of another mysterious song that fades out before we can catch a glimpse of it—can be interpreted as a fantasy of what would happen if he left her.
All the idiosyncrasies in the music, actually, can be related to the anxiety found in the lyrics. When he sings in the bridge about trying to run far away from these bad thoughts, the music mirrors this by moving further and further away from F major. The added musical drama in the last refrain emphasizes the importance of his final statement. Where he previously sang about how these thoughts are currently “In the back of my mind”, the last lyric condemns him to perpetual torture: “It will always be in the back of my mind”. These lyrics take on an extra dark quality when you remember that the song was recorded just one month after Brian Wilson got married. Stebbins refers to the lyrics as “a cry for help” which came “squarely in the midst of mental health problems [and] having just decided to forgo making live appearances with the Beach Boys”. With that context, it’s hard to not interpret "In the Back of My Mind" as at least partially biographical.
But perhaps more than any other element, the arrangement is what is truly incredible about this song. Like many of the songs on Pet Sounds, there’s no traditional drum set on "In the Back of My Mind". Instead, the rhythm is driven by the strumming of the guitars, the melodic vibraphone and Wurlitzer, and touches of woodblocks and timbales. In the bridge, percussive string pizzicatos keep time, but never do we fully fall into a groove. This opens up room for the instruments to have more expressive lines and textures, and ultimately treats the pop arrangement like a composer would work with an orchestra. Harbinger indeed, this approach to orchestration would become a touchstone of Brian Wilson’s work on Pet Sounds and SMilLE and would even continue on the Beach Boys’ late-‘60s psychedelic albums.
Also notable about this arrangement is the lack of vocal harmonies. The song is sung by Dennis Wilson (who also sang the opening song, “Do You Wanna Dance?”, thus bookending the album with his vocals), and on the bridge his brothers Carl and Brian sing together in unison, but there are no harmonies throughout the whole song. Where other anxiety-filled Beach Boys songs employ vocal harmonies to either emphasize a sense of communal emotion, conflicting ideas, or even a sort of schizophrenia, the solitary vocal track on "In the Back of My Mind" adds to the lonely, claustrophobic feeling of the lyrics. And Dennis shows off his surprising skill as a vocalist, capturing the nuance and pain that his character feels.
The most impressive musical moment comes at the last lyric. As Dennis climbs to the top of his vocal range to belt out, “It will always be at the back of my mind”, the guitars and bass begin a descending scale while the strings continue to float above in a cloud of thick harmony. The scale goes down almost two whole octaves, reaching to the lowest range of the instruments and giving the song a sinking momentum. After this is when the track moves into the psychedelic orchestral fade out, with the strings taking on a cinematic melody over a flourish of acoustic guitar arpeggios.
Following "In the Back of My Mind" is the filler chatter track, “Bull Session With Big Daddy”. The short track is part of an informal interview with journalist Earl Leaf talking about the group’s recent European tour. But over the two minutes, very little of substance is said, and one seriously questions why it was included at all. After the sublime magic of "In the Back of My Mind" and all of the inventiveness of The Beach Boys Today!, perhaps the group wanted to come back down to Earth for a bit. In hindsight, I think we can all agree that the album would be better off without it.
Today! is an album that dwells on the future. Brian Wilson and the rest of the group explore in painful detail the devastating power of love and the insecurities that come with it. Even in the upbeat songs like “Do You Wanna Dance?” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”, there is a sense of focus on the future, and a distinct, unsettling feeling that they’re trying to dance off. The intricate and sophisticated music that Brian Wilson supplied for the album brought the group, and pop music in general to a new place. As Keith Badman recounts, despite the album going to number four on the charts, Capitol Records was not quite satisfied with the less-than-commercial direction the band took on the record. They told Wilson to return to “simpler, happy-go-lucky themes on future Beach Boys releases”, insisting that is what the group should be about. But, as we know, his best was truly yet to come.