Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys haven't made a record together in 16 years, but their music feels more present than ever. Last year's release of The Smile Sessions, which documented Wilson's unfinished late-Sixties masterpiece, was a major event, as was Wilson's 2004 version of Smile. The group's harmonies echo through Fleet Foxes' chorales and Animal Collective's stoner jams, their soda-pop song forms are borrowed by indie-rock faux-naifs, and their ambitious arrangements hover over work by Jon Brion, Mark Ronson and pretty much any orchestral-pop producer you can name.
That's Why God Made the Radio sounds a little surreal in this context, like a transmission from an alternate, irony-free universe: 12 songs of Turtle-Waxed melodies and startlingly boyish vocals. But there's a shadow hanging over the proceedings – time, with its sidekicks age and death, issues the Beach Boys seemed designed specifically to dodge. In this way, the album plays like another episode in the longtime struggle between Mike Love's fun-in-the-sun agenda and Wilson's grander, darker themes. It's part class reunion, part Requiem for a Beach Boy.
The album opens with a wordless incantation by Wilson, Love and Al Jardine, with longtime collaborators Bruce Johnston and Jeffrey Foskett (veteran colleague David Marks is also onboard). It's like the start of a church service – and it leads into the title track, a harmony-robed slow dance about the days before Pandora streamed in our Priuses. "Isn't It Time?" is a similarly Love-struck jam that suggests dancing "just like yesterday" over "I Get Around" hand claps. The record's flashbacking first half is cut with humor and self-awareness. "We're back together/Easy money/Ain't life funny," they sing with a wink on "Spring Vacation," adding, for anyone who would knock their hustle, "Hey, what's it to ya?/Hallelujah."
Wilson seems to take charge on the album's darker second half. "Strange World" confesses to being a little baffled by life. The LP's wordless intro is echoed on "Pacific Coast Highway," with a title recalling late brother Dennis Wilson's "Pacific Ocean Blue" and a vision of the highway's end. "Sunlight is fading and there's not much left to say," sings the 69-year-old Wilson over wistful piano chords, adding, "My life/I'm better off alone." The record ends with "Summer's Gone," an accepting embrace of strings and woodwinds that concedes, "We live, then die/And dream about our yesterdays."
Part of a 50th-anniversary reunion that includes a world tour, That's Why God Made the Radio is, to some degree, a sugary, brand-claiming nostalgiafest. But thanks to Wilson's return, it's also an ambitious statement – perhaps a final one – on a legacy that's as much defined by confusion and creative cul-de-sacs as by Pet Sounds. The album is an un- even but deeply touching work by a clearly flawed Great Band – one that, at its best, always aimed for the heavens, even if it didn't always reach them.
Listen to 'That's Why God Made the Radio':