The Beach Boys have tried faithfully to render who and what they are. That what they are is in some ways a simply (existential but) foolish denial of reality, that Hawthorne is not the world that Watts is, is nothing other than the fact that art, like human action, when it impersonally duplicates reality, is mere schizophrenia.
The group takes risks, however. After Pet Sounds, the only flaw of which was its indulgence in a sometimes over-lush sound, they cleaned up and came out with Smiley Smile, so controlled, precise and tight that it risked (and at times lost to) sterility. “Wild Honey” bet on keeping tight and somehow simultaneously releasing everything they had in a sustained emotional burst. The bet paid off. Friends is a transition (note the jacket, the front of which is, like Smiley Smile, Rousseau-like, and the back a photograph of sunset at the beach). Occasionally lapsing into the style of Pet Sounds (as on “Diamond Head,” which is not as good as anything on that earlier LP), they more often mix the dry, silly-but-witty (like a fatigue high) style of Smiley Smile with the harder-driving, less stiff, more emotional feel of Wild Honey.
The best cuts are “Meant For You,” the dedication; “Friends,” a more mature (in that it lacks their usual immediacy) evocation of the surfer “pack” or “club” vision — why go out with a girl when you can go cruising with the guys on Saturday nights? It’s really warm, simple, touching, saying in not so many words that friendship isn’t about words. Other groups say what is happening, they talk about what has happened and what should have, and, by implication, why what has has and why what should have hasn’t.
Everything on the first side is great. These cuts, “Wake the World,” “Be Here In the Morning,” and “When a Man Needs A Woman” all evoke the elation of “Wild Honey.” (The lyrics on the last are a weird synthesis of r-and-b rauchiness and the group’s own wholesome naivete.) “Passing By,” reminiscent of “Flying,” is the best instrumental they’ve done, a smooth linear construction.
On the second side, “Anna Lee” is a trite melody, and “Diamond Head,” except for a break in the middle, is uninteresting. But two cuts by Dennis Wilson and Steve Kalinich, “Little Bird” and “Be Still,” are tight, emotional and beautifully done, with fine lyrics that do not exploit the California-nature-youth idiom that is, as vision, as artistic as the music itself. “Transcendental Meditation” is unfortunate, because India Imports Gibranism is unfortunate, and because it experiments questionably with jazz. But for pop mysticism, it’s not as pretentious as it might be.
“Busy Doing Nothing” words and music by Brian, is a great lyric, a matter-of-fact, vernacular exposition that well evokes a quiet mood with its small beauties. A good melody tapers off into embarrassingly sloppy jazz at its very end.
Like any entity that creates its own idiom, musically as well as culturally, the Beach Boys take getting into. Listen once and you might think this album is nowhere. But it’s really just at a very special place, and after a half-dozen listenings, you can be there.