Brian Wilson’s appearance last fall on Saturday Night was just about the last straw in the sequence of events surrounding his public reemergence. For someone who cared, it was revolting to watch him sit at the piano in a sandbox, singing “Good Vibrations” by himself, his voice barely able to carry a melody. Worse, he seemed oblivious to how degrading the scene was.
But The Beach Boys Love You is a truly wonderful album, and it is Brian’s show from beginning to end. He wrote 11 of the 14 songs and coauthored the others. In light of last year’s events — 15 Big Ones is easily the worst album in the Beach Boys’ long history — its success is even more amazing. The bad songs here are really embarrassing — “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together,” a duet between Brian and wife Marilyn, and “Love Is a Woman,” with Brian’s achingly strained vocal, should never have been released — but mostly this album presents a Brian Wilson who is again comfortable in the recording studio, functioning at a level not too far removed from his better days.
As usual, the strengths are musical, the weaknesses lyrical. Wilson’s lyrics have always reached clumsily for rhymes and images, and the content has often been silly and childlike. But the fact that he’s not trying to be either profound or cute redeems him — you wince, but you also smile. As often as not, it is the very simplicity and warmth of spirit in the words teamed with the very complex and well thought out arrangements that win you over.
“Johnny Carson” is a fine example of this balance. The words are ridiculous:
He sits behind his microphone
He speaks in such a manly tone
Ed McMahon comes on and says “Here’s Johnny”
Every night at 11:30, he’s so funny
It’s nice to have you on the show tonight
I loved your act in Vegas — Outasite.
Musically, though, it’s an arresting tour de force. The song opens with a piano playing a blues line with chain-gang overtones. Then the organ and synthesizer move in, accompanied by Dennis Wilson’s spare snare drum, and near the end, a brief, taut organ interlude of short chords is accented by three short snare shots. It’s simply masterful, in the unassuming way of Smiley Smile and Friends.
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There are rockers here: “Roller Skating Child,” with a great lead guitar moving behind the three-part singing; “Honkin’ Down the Highway” is Jardine’s best vocal since “Help Me Rhonda”; “Mona” is two minutes of sheer joy, as Brian sings of his love for Phil Spector and his own version of the wall of sound carries you up and away. There are some beautiful love songs as well: “The Night Was So Young,” with that Pet Sounds post-surf guitar off in the background; “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” with excellent use of synthesizer and Carl’s soulful singing in the middle of the track; and “I Wanna Pick You Up,” which has everything from an uncharacteristic chorus sung in unison to a five-part a cappella harmony ending.
The Beach Boys Love You is reminiscent of many other Beach Boys albums. Like the best of them, it’s flawed but enjoyable. Brian Wilson still isn’t singing as well as he used to, but his playing and composing talents have certainly returned from wherever they’ve been the past few years. Considering what he’s been through, it’s some accomplishment. Next time, Brian, let’s get together and do it again. Okay?