Even the Beach Boys ' sunniest songs include a bittersweet tinge of melancholy, but by the early '70s, the band seemed surrounded by an inescapable gloom. The group's 17th album, Surf's Up , caught them at a particularly vulnerable moment. Just five years removed from the creative breakthrough of Pet Sounds , they'd been hit hard by problems both internal — chief songwriter Brian Wilson spent years sidelined by a variety of mental and emotional issues — and external, as changing trends and new rock subgenres left their once-thrilling vocal blend sounding dated. It all added up to a precipitous sales slump for the once-dominant band, which in turn fed into a period of creative drift that found the lineup splitting into factions and churning in flux. Without Wilson to rally behind, the Beach Boys strained to achieve internal equilibrium even as they fought the growing perception that they were over the hill. Hopes were high when they departed longtime label home Capitol in order to establish their own imprint, the Reprise -distributed Brother Records, but their first release through the new arrangement, 's Sunflower , was their lowest-charting collection of new material to date. Yet even at their most scattered, the Beach Boys remained capable of startling beauty, and Surf's Up is a case in point. Released Aug. It never quite coheres, but it's also never less than interesting, and bits and pieces shine as brightly as anything in the group's incredible catalog. Like much of what the band released during this period, the parts of Surf's Up that work do so essentially in spite of everything that was happening behind the scenes.
Let's do this. It's the summertime, and we're coming off of a decade-long re-evaluation of the Beach Boys' legacy. It just doesn't stop. If you thought it began and ended with Pet Sounds , keep thinking, buddy. Without question, the resurrection of the Beach Boys in a vibrant critical and commercial capacity was a significant retrospective development of music in the '90s. Pet Sounds becomes, now that we think about it, arguably the greatest pop production ever; a box set commemorating the album and the group's legacy are released and uniformly lauded; pop groups everywhere shamelessly draw inspiration from the acid-tinged barbershop quartet arrangements; a handicapped Brian Wilson even manages to release something of a comeback. With this extensive overhaul, it's right to expect some chafe only zealots with fat wallets could feel compelled to purchase.
In this case that would not be a matter of production why not expect technical perfection from a group that began producing itself in the early Sixties that handles the studio with such mastery? Still, I recall my own first reaction to Sunflower ; some cuts at first seemed too thin, too light. But the important thing about the Beach Boys is just this aspect of their music. The production is usually flawless and the melodies so frequently exquisite that one tends to hear, then listen for and finally dismiss it as surface. Yet the surface is manipulated so carefully and so brilliantly that and here I am forced by a certain poverty of analogy to shift senses it becomes hologrammatic.