Pick of the Geek – Beach Boys Surf’s Up

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Pet Sounds is, of course, perfect, but sometimes albums can be great in their imperfections.  Case in point: 1971’s Surf’s Up, one of a series of Beach Boys albums designed to cannibalise the remnants of chief songwriter Brian Wilson’s enormous, unreleased project Smile.  The album is a hotchpotch of utterly incompatible songwriting voices, from Al Jardine’s accomplished folk pastiche Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song) to Mike Love’s regrettable attempts at protest songs about student demonstrations and water pollution.  The latter, at least, provides an accidental statement; lyrically clodhopping as Don’t Go Near the Water is, putting a song with that title at the start of a Beach Boys album lets you know the days of carefree surf music are over.  Not that Surf’s Up is without joy; the blissed-out Feel Flows was used to great effect in Cameron Crowe’s almost famous, and the pulsing, bass-driven Long Promised Road faces up to the group’s recent tragedies with strength and defiance for once.  But even here the group’s famous harmonies sound eerie rather than carefree, a dark strain which culminates in the three bleakest songs in the Beach Boys canon.  New collaborator Jack Rieley lends his affectingly wobbly, vulnerable voice to the funereal A Day in the Life of a Tree, and Brian’s harrowing, reverb-soaked ‘Til I Die recasts the ocean as a place for drowning, rather than surfing.  The final statement is the title track, salvaged from Smile and subsequently claimed by Leonard Bernstein as the greatest song of the 20th century.  An astonishing synthesis of Brian’s diverse interests in pop, rock, Broadway and classical modes, it starts by casting the listener into a musically and lyrically dense evocation of a ruined future America, slips into a painfully tender duet for piano and voice in C minor, then tears up all of its own rules to take the listener into something like heaven.  Who couldn’t forgive the album its weak spots when it leaves you somewhere like this?

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