M.I.U. Album completes a kind of informal trilogy for the Beach Boys — a cycle begun by Brian Wilson's widely ballyhooed, confusing and ultimately some-what botched return to an active role inside the group with 15 Big Ones in 1976. The new record has little of the derivative, heavy-handed rock & roll revisionism that characterized 15 Big Ones and even less of the murk eccentricity of The Beach Boys Love You, the middle LP. Instead, it's a resolutely sunny retrospective: a carefully orchestrated return to the style, if not the scope, of the band's classic mid-Sixties material. Because of its deliberately small scale, M.I.U. Album is much less dramatically flawed than either of its predecessors. But, largely for the same reason, it's also the least substantial, and the least interesting, of the three.
In fact, this record would be a trifle — close to a throwaway — if the Beach Boys weren't the Beach Boys and if Brian Wilson weren't Brian Wilson. That his big comeback turned out to be such a debacle probably isn't entirely his fault — the surprise was that he chose to return at all. In his absence, the group scored artistically really only once, with 1973's underrated Holland. They then went on to become nothing more or less than a slick, well-oiled nostalgia unit. Poor, befuddled Brian, stumbling back onto the stage, could only mess up the gears.
Though 15 Big Ones yielded a couple of hit singles, it wasn't much of an aesthetic success. Most of the drama seemed to have taken place in the studio before anything actually got put on vinyl, and the result was a stagy, self-conscious, oddly lifeless work. Musically, the songs lacked punch, and Brian's reliance on other people's material suggested a man far more insecure about his own abilities than the record's attendant hype would indicate.
The Beach Boys Love You, on the other hand, was completely Brian Wilson's album: he wrote every song (three in collaboration), and the dense, quirkily mocking vision was all his. With the exception of the great "Don't Worry Baby," Brian had never really been able to translate the brooding, reclusive side of his character successfully into pop terms. His private, confessional songs were eccentrically convincing without being particularly moving — they remained claustrophobic, even somewhat trite. (Curiously, it's on the joyous early rockers that his personality is most vivid. Our knowledge of the anxiety behind their extroverted hedonism gives them, in retrospect, an added depth.)
The Beach Boys Love You was a monumental self-indulgence in Brian's most bizarre, least commercial vein. It undercut expectations at every turn with a dark, funny absurdity ("Johnny Carson," for instance). The response, however, was less than ecstatic — the critical reaction, as I recall it, a sort of protracted "Eh?" And now, as the group returns to a safe, tried-and-true, earlier style, Brian seems to be getting shunted aside again: on the new LP, he's listed only as "executive producer," sings very little and wrote just two of the twelve songs on his own. (The Beach Boys Love You was dedicated by the band to "Brian whom we love with all our hearts," which sounds like nothing so much as a polite way of saying: "We know he's a nut, but don't blame us.")
With Brian Wilson, for all practical purposes, exiled back to the sandbox again, M.I.U. Album seems contrived and artificial right from the start. The tracks strive to recapture the dreamy, adolescent innocence of the Beach Boys' earliest hits, and fail not so much because the concepts are dated but because the group can't infuse the new material with the same sense of grandeur that made the old songs such archetypal triumphs. Cuts like "Hey Little Tomboy" and "Wontcha Come Out Tonight" (the titles alone tip you off) are tightly crafted, as always, but minor: mere formal exercises in a tired genre.
There's a kind of forced spiritual starvation at work here. We know that this band has been through more — and has more to say — than these well-made, insistently simplistic miniatures allow them to express. As if to drive the recidivist point home, "Kona Coast" includes the first reference to surfing in a Beach Boys song in God knows how many years. But it's just a gesture, and the tune itself, like "Belles of Paris" on side two, is no more than a travelogue ("Wontcha come back to Hawaii"), ready-made for an airline commercial. The mention of disco on "She's Got Rhythm" is even more jarring: an anachronism intruding upon an anachronism.
Even when the Beach Boys reach for an interesting mood, they can't quite sustain it. Clearly, a song like "March Point of Our Love" is intended as a playful conceit, but the joke, in this case, is so clunky that the group can't do much with it except repeat the title line over and over again. Of the two covers, "Peggy Sue," though it's a drearily obvious choice, comes off fairly well (there's a nicely martial percussive effect in bit). But the other, "Come Go with Me," is cast from the same leaden mold as 15 Big Ones' "Rock and Roll Music," which is to say it's like slow death in sugar frosting.Throughout, the lackluster playing and singing has a melancholy edge, almost as if the Beach Boys are fully aware that they've outgrown this kind of teen fantasy, but can't think of anyplace else to go.
More than any band in the Sixties pantheon, the Beach Boys exemplify the curious duality of rock & roll: that it's a genre more of and about the immediate moment than any other art form, but that it also (at its best) freezes that moment into something timeless and universal. Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones knew this, yet the quality of their vision was such that it constantly left them open to fresh revelations. Their epiphanies invariably raised new questions even as they laid old ones to rest.
But the Beach Boys' vision was always static, and their protagonists curiously passive spokesmen: a state of mind was being celebrated, not any particular action. They invented an era too well — so well, in fact, that it effectively prevented them from expanding on what they'd already done. And if, as individuals, they sometimes progressed, the epic spaciousness of their classic Sixties work still had to be — and was — reduced. The biggest shortcoming of the Beach Boys' Seventies output, even at its most successful, is that the horizon's always so small. M.I.U. Album, a sad little footnote to their glory years, only suggests that the notion of an "endless summer" has a darker shade of meaning than they, or we, could have realized at the time.