Brian Wilson never ceases to amaze me. His musical talents are a given, what continues to knock me out is how he has managed to keep “coming back” over and over again. After the notorious psychological meltdown he had during the original Smile sessions, a lot of people had written him off as a casualty of the ’60s. He occasionally surfaced in the ’70s, along with a big promotional push from the record company to the effect of “Brian’s back!” Say what you will about albums such as 15 Big Ones (1976) or L.A. (Light Album) (1979), but they were certainly not Pet Sounds (1966).
Then in 1988, something completely unexpected happened. He released his first solo album, titled Brian Wilson. While the sound of ’80s electronics badly dates it, there were some fantastic songs on this record, including “Love and Mercy,” “Melt Away,” and the closing “Rio Grande” suite. He continued his comeback in the following years with more albums, and even began touring again.
Then in 2004, came one of the most astounding releases in rock history. Twenty-eight years after beginning Smile, he completed it. I do not know of any fan who ever expected Brian to actually finish and release Smile. It was truly an event. While the new Beach Boys album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, is not quite as big a shock, it is another recording I never thought would happen. The arguments between Wilson and Mike Love seemed to preclude them ever working together on a “real” new Beach Boys project ever again.
Yet, here it is. And I must say, it is very good. One of the big surprises for me were the co-writing credits between Love and Wilson (among other collaborators). There is also a song credited solely to Love, “Daybreak Over the Ocean.” Then there are the vocals, which are the biggest asset the album has. Even with Brian’s brothers Dennis and Carl gone, the blend of the voices of Al Jardine, Mike Love, and Brian Wilson somehow retain that hallmark Beach Boys sound.
The album opens with “Think About The Days,” which is a one minute and 27 second introduction featuring the harmonies of the group with a gentle piano behind them. It does a marvelous job of setting the tone of wistfulness which permeates the album. Next is the title track, and it has everything a great Beach Boys song should have. A terrific melody, those lovely harmonies, and lyrics which reference something Brian has cherished all his life, the AM radio he listened to while growing up in Hawthorne, CA.
The album may not perfect, but there certainly no “bad” tracks on it. “Isn’t It Time” and “Spring Vacation” are two of the Wilson/Love collaborations. “Isn’t It Time” credits three other writers as well, including Joe Thomas. Thomas only gets a “recorded by” credit for the set, but he collaborated on every single track with the exception of Love’s “Daybreak Over The Ocean.” It seems that his influence was pretty pronounced throughout the sessions.
In regards to “Daybreak Over the Ocean,“ apparently it has a long history, and was initially slated to appear on Love’s aborted 1978 solo album. With all due respect to Mike Love fans, he seems a bit wordy. Then again, so was Van Dyke Parks, so what are you gonna do? Besides, if that is my main complaint about the album, it is a pretty minor one.
Where That’s Why God Made the Radio really pays off is in the closing three-song suite of “From There to Back Again,” “Pacific Coast Highway,” and “Summer’s Gone.” The suite format is something Brian has worked at a number of times over the years, beginning with Smile. These three tunes are wonderful and flow together very well. The final track, “Summer’s Gone” is one of the most beautiful Brian Wilson songs I have heard in a very long time. It is that space in Brian’s heart where he expresses the emotions of the sun going down in such a beautiful way that just gets me every time. The song was reportedly written after his mother’s, then Carl’s deaths, and was intended as the final song on the final Beach Boys album.
If That’s Why God Made the Radio does prove to be the final Beach Boys album, then so be it. The fact that the group is still able to make music as marvelous as this 50 years on is hard to believe. Amazing, in fact.