The Beach Boys – ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio’ – Review

10 Jun

The Beach Boys have always been about opposites; art vs commerce, creativity vs commercialism, fantasy vs reality. One of the most interesting things about the group is the way these opposites have collided, on their albums, but especially in how different people remember the band. It’s entirely plausible that somebody will be aware of the group as a nostalgia act singing songs about surfing and California girls but likewise it’s plausible that someone else could remember them exclusively as the groundbreaking psychedelic pioneers. This is why bands as diverse as Maroon five, Flaming Lips, Foster the People, The Smiths, Stone Roses, Fleet Foxes and Red Hot Chili Peppers can claim the Beach Boys influence – they’ve all been listening to the same band, but no doubt different incarnations of the band.

So in 2012 how do these conflicting ideals play out on the group’s first album in over 25 years? Traditionaly, In the red corner, representing the nostalgic, surf rock version of the group, we’ve had that dastardly villain Mike Love. In the blue corner, representing the artistic, psychedelic side of the group, is the triumphant underdog Brian Wilson. After decades in the ring, slugging it out over naming rights and other tedious matters, the two have finally kissed and made up, and on the awkwardly named ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio’ both incarnations of the group are represented, and somewhat fittingly, they melt into one united front. Here the contradictions and conflicts are as obvious as ever, but perhaps for the first time the two versions of the group are comfortably represented on the same record and occasionally in the same songs.

When I read the track listing and saw that there were songs called ‘Spring Vacation’ and ‘Beaches in Mind’, I got quite worried that I would have to listen to a bunch of OAPs getting nostalgic about teenage girls and the like, which, lets face it, nobody wants to hear. Whilst a couple of these tracks do feature some cringe worthy lyrics that really shouldn’t be sung by men eligible for the free bus pass, for the most part this is a wonderfully thoughtful and nuanced album about getting old. Yes it’s nostalgic, but not in the way you might suspect. On one of their most famous hits, 1968’s ‘Do It Again’ they sang ‘California girls and a beautiful coastline / with warmed up weather let’s get together and do it again’, which, coming only a few years after they were at the beach with beautiful women, wasn’t too unrealistic a proposition. But in 2012 they realise that they are too old to ‘do it again’ and their new songs sadly acknowledge this fact. At one point Mike sings ‘If I had my way I’d be back again, where the good times never end’ but in his voice there is resignation that this won’t ever be. He can’t go back to the good old days, and coming from the always positive Mike Love, this is quite heart wrenching to listen to.

Here they ask questions like ‘Do you remember me and the way we used to be?’ and ‘Why don’t we feel the way we used to anymore?’ They are questions asked standing by the shore looking out into the sunset, in Southern California, where once they would have surfed. The music is as sweet and warm as it always was but the tempos are slower and the instruments are more textured. There is depth and restraint and consideration to the music (along with a whole lot of unnecessary reverb),and the youthful swagger has disappeared. The final three songs combine to make a beautiful suite that addresses the subject of aging and longing directly: ‘Sometimes I realise my days are moving on, and I want to go home’ Brian croons on the tender ‘North Pacific Highway’, which recalls the similar sentiment he expressed in 1965 on ‘Sloop John B’ – ‘I feel so broke up, I want to go home’.

Whilst I want to focus on the many (quite surprising) positives, this is not a perfect album (very few beach boys albums are). The group aren’t as vocally strong as they once were and this is unfortunately compensated for by some awful auto tuning. So obvious and transparent is the digital tinkering that it rather spoils one or two of the songs (in particular the otherwise gorgeous ‘There and Back Again’). The production in general is pretty good but it’s been recorded by a Hollywood studio hack and this reveals itself in some dodgy AOR arrangements and cheesy instrumentation. It also lacks the wall of sound production that Brian gave to the group’s best music; here the instruments are given too much room to breath and the result is a mix so shiny and polished that you can almost see your face in it. The dodgy production is complimented by one or two lapses into corny songwriting; ‘The Private Life of Bill and Sue’ and ‘Beaches in Mind’ are almost unlistenably bad, but as I said at the start of this review, this cheesy element has always been a part of the group’s story and it would almost be strange if this side of the band wasn’t represented on the album.

The record ends with the sound of rain, and the wisdom that ‘Summer’s gone away with yesterday, old friends have gone their separate ways’. It’s a depressing end to an album from a band known for their eternal optimism. But lets not forget that this is the group that released some of the most poignant songs about heartbreak and youthful worries, it should be no real surprise that they are able to transfer that feeling in to a different type of heart ache – that of growing old. The boxing metaphor I used earlier is, in retrospect, inappropriate; yes, the group have spent decades fighting in court and the media but on ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio’ I am reminded of what the group are best known for, and what they shall be remembered for – their harmonies. Not only are they now singing in harmony for the first time in decades, but more poignantly, they are living in harmony.

8/10

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