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It's finally sinking in
One day begins, another ends
I live them all and back again.”
When America’s most iconic group, The Beach Boys, announced that they were to mark the band’s 50th anniversary in 2012 by releasing a brand-new album –- their first with mastermind and legendary creative genius Brian Wilson since 1985’s The Beach Boys -– it was the last thing long-time fans expected. For more than two decades Brian Wilson had shown no interest in rejoining his old band members, opting instead to concentrate on his solo career, family and health (after years of drug abuse, tragedy and legal battles). Even more unexpected was the sheer quality of That’s Why God Made The Radio, The Beach Boys’ 29th studio album and their strongest release since 1971’s Surf’s Up or 1977’s slightly eccentric and rather endearing The Beach Boys Love You. Of course the high standard owes much to Brian Wilson’s beautifully melodic compositions and intricate, lush vocal arrangements. Endowed with full creative control, Wilson produced the entire album and co-wrote 11 out of 12 songs, his biggest contribution to a Beach Boys project since 1966’s Pet Sounds (or 1967’s Smiley Smile, the aborted Smile album, which was finally released in 2011). Other than Brian Wilson, the line-up consists of founding members Mike Love, Al Jardine, and David Marks, as well as Bruce Johnston, who joined the band as far back as 1965, all of whom are in their 70s. At their age, it’s only natural that the nostalgic and often bittersweet lyrics reflect on the passing of time, old age, death, and the band’s legacy, albeit mixed with happy memories of youth, love, and old friendships.
Awash with layers of exquisitely wistful harmonies floating over a pensive piano motif and a French horn (evoking the sentiments of its title), the wordless opening track Think About The Days comes off as a more melancholic version of the enchanting Our Prayer (first song on the album Smile). At just 1:16 mintutes, it’s very short, but it's a captivating start to the album and instantly draws the listener into the warm, magical world of The Beach Boys so beloved by their fans. The first single, That’s Why God Made The Radio, with its soaring chorus, is classic Beach Boys and by far their most catchy and memorable single release since either Good Timin’ (off 1979’s L.A. (Light Album) or Goin’ On (from 1980’s Keepin’ The Summer Alive), both of which share the same melodic aesthetics and upbeat harmonies. This wonderful song was written by Brian Wilson during the sessions for his 1998 solo album Imagination, but he decided to shelve it, as he believed that its full potential could only be truly realized by virtue of the unique harmonies of The Beach Boys –- and it was worth the wait. Featuring light instrumentation consisting of just ukulele and piano, the sprightly and charming Isn’t It Time moves along at a happy-go-lucky pace, like a lightweight version of Do It Again (from 1969’s 20/20 album) with which it also shares a similar lyrical subject: looking back while still looking ahead. Do It Again was about The Beach Boys approaching their 30s, reminiscing about the early years and still wanting to have fun (“Well, I’ve been thinking ‘bout / All the places we’ve surfed and danced and / All the faces we’ve missed, so let’s get / Back together and do it again”), and Isn’t It Time repeats those sentiments, only this time around it feels more like it might be their very last chance to reunite and relive The Beach Boys experience one more time (“Isn't it time we danced the night away / How about doing it just like yesterday?.../ Now is the time to let them happen again’’).
Shelter is one of those old-fashioned Pop songs that just plain works on every level; the effortless melody, the vocals, the harmonies, the arrangement, there’s not a single note out of place. And as would be expected, Brian Wilson adds an unusual choice of instruments for a Pop song in the shape of trombone and harpsichord. Mike Love sings lead on the lovely, softly lilting Daybreak Over The Ocean. A romantic, Spanish-tinged acoustic guitar underlines the sweet, lovelorn lyrics, which, true to tradition, make use of maritime imagery (”Daybreak over the ocean / Moonlight still on the sea / Will the waves gentle motion / Bring my babe, my baby back to me?”). Strange World is a typically ambitious Brian Wilson track that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on 1966’s Pet Sounds. Complete with bombastic tympani and castanets, even a bicycle bell (as on the Pet Sounds track You Still Believe In Me), this song is a striking example of Brian Wilson’s inventive chord progressions and efficient use of instruments to create specific moods.
The wistful atmosphere of short album opener Think About The Days also permeates the album's final three tracks. Bittersweet and poignant, these songs possess a melancholic beauty and an emotional depth on a par with their most affecting songs from the '60s and early '70s. The album's absolute highlight, From There To Back Again, is such a stunning composition that it would've shone equally bright even if it had been written and recorded for Pet Sounds or Sunflower. From Al Jardine's lead vocal and the soaring harmonies to the intricate vocal arrangement, the subtle piano and the lovely flutes to the vocal build-up that leads to Al Jardine's charming whistling, From There To Back Again is a masterclass in songwriting, taking its rightful place among the best songs The Beach Boys ever recorded. The lyrics to the song read like a love letter written by a band member to his other band members, or to the aging fans who stuck by them for all of these years, asking them to join the band for one more ride (You've been thinking 'bout some things we used to do / Thinking 'bout while life was still in front of you / Back where you belong, our favorite song / Won't you listen?").
The pensive Pacific Coast Highway is a short piano piece (at just under two minutes) reflecting on mortality ("Sometimes I realize my days are getting on") and the impending end of the band's recording and touring ("Sunlight's fading and there's not much left to say"). Wrapped in sombre harmonies, the song ends on a touching note, as the band sings the very last word: "Goodbye" ("Drivin' down Pacific Coast, out on Highway 1 / The setting sun / Goodbye"). And so, as the title of the last song suggests, the sun sets. Summer's Gone may not be a particularly original metaphor to signify the closing of a chapter, but for a band who made a long-lasting career out of celebrating the sunny California lifestyle and everything that goes with it, it's just perfect. The subject matter may sound like a depressing prospect, but it's just as much a tribute to life and a celebration of its beauty as it's a definitive end to it, the band members grateful for each new day in the autumn of their lives ("Summer's gone / I'm gonna sit and watch the waves / We laugh, we cry / We live then die / And dream about our yesterdays"). Summer's Gone fades out to the haunting sound of waves crashing on a beach.
This was one unlikely reunion if ever there was one, but to The Beach Boys' credit they didn't just embark upon a tour to cash in on the need for nostalgia like so many other old bands. Instead the reunited group justified their further existence by recording an album that's far superior to any other album they'd released since 1971 and hereby made one of the most gratifying comebacks of any band in music history. Not only was That's Why God Made The Radio a creative success, the album also did extremely well commercially, reaching No. 3 on the Billboard Album Chart and securing The Beach Boys their first Top 10 album since 1965. Not bad for a group of old pros in their 70s.