Had it been released five years ago, when gasoline was cheaper, nuclear energy “safe” and punk rock only a rumor, Keepin’ the Summer Alive might have given the Beach Boys one last platinum-perfect wave to ride out on before hanging up their surfboards and retiring to Las Vegas as an oldies act. Handsomely produced by Bruce Johnston, the new album blends the pantheism of Holland, the tunefulness of Pet Sounds and the sweetness of Surf’s Up into a polished, hook-filled retrospective that has the ring of an official farewell. Unfortunately, it comes too late to matter much culturally. Time has passed the Beach Boys by, and all the gloss in the world can’t redeem them from terminal irrelevancy.
Keepin’ the Summer Alive gleams like a well-kept Edsel, with harmonies as passionless as they are precise and lyrics that hark back to seasons so long gone and territories so provincial that the nostalgia here is of more pathological than historical interest. The songs try very hard to bring the LP’s title to life in a dogged attempt to recapture the innocence of white teenage America circa 1960. Done as a rock & roll barbershop-quartet tune, the record’s lone oldie, Chuck Berry’s “School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell),” dates from 1957. Only one Beach Boys number, Johnston’s “Endless Harmony,” acknowledges that anything important happened in the last twenty years — and that event was the rise of the Beach Boys. The rest is all infantile paeans to nature, girls, the sun and especially “sum-sum-summer-time.” We’ve heard it before, done with more zest, humor and immediacy.
In “Santa Ana Winds,” one of the album’s prettiest cuts, Al Jar-dine (solemnly playing the part of the wind) syllabicates like a superannuated flower child about “bringing life into human-i-ty.” Keepin’ the Summer Alive‘s most anachronistic songs — “Some of Your Love,” “Oh Darlin’,” “Sunshine” and “Goin’ On,” all coauthored by Brian Wilson and Mike Love — are sonic clones of the type of high-school ditty this duo wrote in the early Sixties. These compositions are so unbelievably naive that you can’t help but wonder if they’re scraps exhumed from a trunk in some-one’s attic. Or are ninth-grade romances and summer vacations still the only experiences that Wilson and Love, both deep in their thirties now, remember as having meant anything?
Keepin’ the Summer Alive does contain a few glimmers of wit. Wilson and Love’s “When Girls Get Together” syncopates a lively melody above a lumbering bass, while the guys eavesdrop on women strolling through the park and chatting about men. Bruce Johnston’s elegiac “Endless Harmony” glibly sums up the Beach Boys myth: “ocean lovers” enjoying “striped-shirt freedom” singing “God Bless America.” Midway through the number, Johnston asks, “What’s it all mean?” then quickly mutters, “Oh, I know it means there’s an endless harmony.” The group chimes in behind him, exhaling sadly on a minor sixth chord. That’s the one poignant moment in this expensive, nicely maintained rock & roll wax museum.