The Beach Boys, ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio’ (Capitol)

SPIN Rating: 6 of 10
Release Date: June 05, 2012
Label: Capitol

In the ’60s, they were the only American band to rival the Beatles commercially or creatively. In the ’70s, in-house genius Brian Wilson sparred with his demons, and the group staggered on as a mediocre democracy. In the ’80s, “Kokomo.” Over the past three decades, the Beach Boys’ story boasts far more legal trouble and personal tragedy than worthwhile music; Brian’s dogged solo career has proved that he doesn’t need those other guys to make all those luminous sounds, but commerce (and our ongoing, festival-driven bout of Reunion Mania) prefers otherwise. So now, they’re together again. Or at least, everyone who’s still alive.

The official lineup on That’s Why God Made the Radio includes founding members Mike Love and Al Jardine, longtime teammate Bruce Johnston, and, weirdly, David Marks, who left the group in 1963 and functions more as a mascot of bygone youth, not a meaningful contributor. Sadly, Brian’s brothers — angelic Carl, who sang so beautifully on “Good Vibrations,” and trouble-prone Dennis, who added a dash of badass cred to the mostly unsexy crew — have long since passed. Add the strong presence here from Brian’s more recent cohorts (producer Joe Thomas and singer-guitarist Jeffrey Foskett), and you may wonder if this is another solo jaunt in disguise.

Still, a half-century(!) on, the Beach Boys brand clearly hasn’t lost its power to sell; or as the buoyant “Spring Vacation” observes with startling candor, “We’re back together / Easy money, ain’t life funny?” Whether Radio artistically justifies a reboot is less certain. Nearly a masterpiece, the heartwarming title track revisits the breathtaking Four Freshmen-derived vocal harmonies Brian always has crafted so brilliantly; conversely, failures like “Beaches in Mind” are tepid attempts to repackage the laziest kind of feel-good California clichés, while Mike Love haters won’t be disappointed that his only solo composition here, “Daybreak Over the Ocean,” is even duller than usual.

Regardless, these seemingly innocuous tunes often reveal a deep vein of melancholy, and not a little weirdness. Celebrating a mythological teen culture of cars, beaches, and babes, the Beach Boys’ exuberant ’60s hits were an ode to illusions that couldn’t endure. By 1968, they were already ambivalently revisiting those idealized glory days with “Do It Again”; more recently, Brian has revisited Pet Sounds (live) and Smile (in the studio), perhaps trying to understand what these touchstones mean to him, and to the fans. But here, obsessive nostalgia generates a poignant sense of mortality and loss truly painful to encounter. Borrowing a melody from their underrated oldie “Darlin’,” the tender “Shelter” offers comfort, wishing to “take a page from yesterday,” while “From There to Back Again” sadly wonders, “Why don’t we feel the way we used to anymore?” Conclusion: “We gave it all.”

Radio concludes in that same oppressively somber fashion. The penultimate track, “Pacific Coast Highway,” echoes a grand Elton John ballad, with Brian singing, “My life, I’m better off alone,” while the hushed, self-explanatory closer “Summer’s Gone,” suggests a deathbed meditation, with its murmur of “We live, then die / And dream about our yesterday.” Depressed yet?

Still, for all the erratic songwriting and gloomy vibesThat’s Why God Made the Radio ultimately inspires a strange sort of optimism. Thanks to Brian’s studio magic, the Boys still sound great together — dig the dazzling a cappella display “Think About the Days,” which kicks off the album with uplifting grace — and it’s even fun to hear Love’s nasal honk again (in small doses). Assuming this is the start of a genuine, ongoing return engagement and not a final desperate gasp (a huge assumption, granted), these codgers ought to loosen (and cheer) up next time. Old folks need their fun, too, even if the T-Bird has turned to rust.


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