REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 06/16/2009
The early 1970’s witnessed the rock intelligentsia warming to The Beach Boys. Critical reception for the band’s recent works had been relatively high; 20/20 and Sunflower were hailed as “return to form” for the group, which had sustained body blows with the failure to release SMiLE and degrading Brian Wilson. Surf’s Up saw the group attempt exorcise those demons, and while the final results weren’t as earthshaking as the group would have wanted, the record marked yet another solid offering.
Unlike Sunflower, which very much earned its title with positive, sun-infused lyrics and music to match, Surf’s Up qualifies as one of the “darker” Beach Boys albums. Warnings of poor environmental policies (“Don’t Go Near The Water”) and the casualties of the American Dream (“Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)”) decidedly take a firm stand against what one would normally expect from The Beach Boys. In fact, the nihilistic “Til I Die” saw a fierce fight over its inclusion on the record, due to what some members perceived as the song being too much of a “downer.”
From a strictly musical standpoint, Surf’s Up remains one of the most fascinating listens of the post-Pet Sounds career for The Beach Boys. Perhaps the subject material inspired the group to reach those lofty heights again, or the band was tired of attempting to rework another tune from their early career. Whatever the case, this release finds The Beach Boys stretching out, much as they did with 20/20.
The slightly jarring, demented opening strains of “Don’t Go Near The Water” indicate just how different this release proves to be. By the time the band has finished performing the legendary unreleased title track, the listener has been privy to the sounds of utensils clanging together, the plucking of harps, the heavy gurgles of synthesizers, and even an attempt to describe the life of a plant.
As with many Beach Boys records, there are glaring weak spots amongst gems. The aforementioned “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” must have been conceived under the influence of multiple substances; the song plays out exactly as the title would indicate and is delivered by the band’s manager, Jack Rieley. Suffice to say, it does not contain man endearing qualities. “Student Demonstration Time” has the distinction of being one of the group’s most rocking songs, but putting up with Mike Love expounding on events such as the Kent State Massacre is neither engaging nor thought provoking.
The second half of the disc reveals its greatest treasures. The fact that two of them are penned by Brian Wilson is not a coincidence. “Til I Die” reveals the mindset of a man slowly losing his grip on reality and the depths of the depression that would cause. Wilson seeks out and identifies ways in which to express his utter isolation and feeling of smallness: a leaf on a windy day, a cork in the ocean, a rock in a landslide. When Wilson asks how long will the wind blow, it is hard not to share in the pain.
The album’s title track by this point was the most discussed track from the aborted SMiLE, and its inclusion here only serves as a reminder of just what was lost by the failure to complete that record. The lyrics of Van Dyke Parks are both oblique and accessible at different points, bringing up iconic imagery of the classical age while hearkening back to the very first years of The Beach Boys. Carl Wilson must be complimented for facing a daunting task: completing the song as far as was within his capabilities. Those legendary Beach Boy vocals are on full display, soaring higher and higher. The “feel” approach Brian Wilson used to record could never be truly replicated, but Carl managed to incorporate many elements of the original demo into the final product. The wait, at that point in time, was well worth it.
There are times when I enter into a review having a preconceived notion about what rating it is going to receive. Other times, that notion is dispelled by the simplest of tasks: listening to the music itself. Surf’s Up has just enough stellar moments on it to make the listener forget about its weakest points. It expanded slightly upon what the Beach Boys had previously delivered, and though it is far from the level of a Pet Sounds, this is the last time the public would hear the group this focused and creative. That has to count for something.