After a long period of recovery, mediocrity, and general disaster, the Beach Boys have finally produced an album that can stand with Pet Sounds: the old vocal and instrumental complexity has returned and the result largely justifies the absurd faith some of us have had that the Beach Boys were actually still capable of producing a superb rock album — or, more precisely, a suberb rock muzak album. “Add Some Music to Your Day”; hip supermarkets might program this album for contented browsing among the frozen vegetables and canned fruit.
As a reassuring note, most of the lyric impotence of the group remains, though not so prominently displayed as on such colorful recent outings as Friends. In what is mainly a simple collection of love songs, Dennis Wilson has explored some aspects of rhythm and blues while Brian continues to work within his own distinctive framework. Thus on the one hand we have “It’s About Time” and “Slip on Through,” hints of the soft hard rock that marked “I Get Around,” “Help Me Rhonda,” etc., transferred to the domain of contemporary Motown. Dennis even pulls off a rib-tickling imitation of Barry Melton imitating James Brown on “Got to Know the Woman.” All of these tracks are executed with a certain aplomb that often was lacking in post-“Good Vibrations” Beach Boy music, as if the self-consciousness of such homogenizing enterprise as making a new Beach Boy record has been again overcome. As a result, the naivete of the group is more astounding than ever — I mean, good Christ, it’s 1970 and here we have a new, excellent Beach Boys’ epic, and isn’t that irrelevant?
In any case, Brian’s new stuff is great, especially “This Whole World” and “All I Wanna Do.” Which brings up the engineering and production work on this album: it’s flawless, especially in view of the number of overdubs. There is a warmth, a floating quality to the stereo that far surpasses the mixing on, say, Abbey Road. The effects are subtle, except for the outrageous echo on “All I Wanna Do” that makes the song such a mind — wrenching experience. And then there is “Cool, Cool Water,” Brian’s exquisite ode to water in all its manifestations, which, like “Add Some Music,” is encyclopedic in its trivial catalogue of the subject at hand. “Cool, Cool Water” pulls off a Smiley Smile far better than most of the material on that disappointing venture.
The inevitable saccharine ballads are present in abundance. “Deirdre” and particularly Brian’s “Our Sweet Love” rejoin the ongoing tradition of “Surfer Girl,” although “Our Sweet Love” is most reminiscent of the mood of Pet Sounds. Of course there is some lesser stuff here, like “At My Window.” No matter: as a whole, Sunflower is without doubt the best Beach Boys album in recent memory, a stylistically coherent tour de force. It makes one wonder though whether anyone still listens to their music, or could give a shit about it. This album will probably have the fate of being taken as a decadent piece of fluff at a time when we could use more Liberation Music Orchestras. It is decadent fluff — but brilliant fluff. The Beach Boys are plastic madmen, rock geniuses. The plastic should not hide from use the geniuses who molded it.