Despite the ineptitude and failure of Brian Wilson in many areas of his life, here, on the cusp of 70, he can still make beautiful music. Don't doubt that That's Why God Made the Radio, the new album by The Beach Boys, sounds as good as it does. Without Brian Wilson, it could not have been made.
Yes, they are old. No, they can't quite hit all the notes they made with ease in their twenties. And no, he hasn't written a rival to the great "Good Vibrations." But Wilson has largely authored a fine set of summery songs that resonate with all that is good (or that we like to think is good) about summer, the beach, and that Southern California life and yet which bear the mark of mortality, doubt, and longing. Wisely, he's not singing about hot rods and girls and surfing anymore or indulging in nostalgia but applying those some great vocal harmonies and pop tunes to lyrics about summers nearly gone. It's as you might expect from a man pushing 70. He's a grown up, not a kid.
The album is bookended with bittersweet songs. It leads off with "Think About the Days," a wordless and yet arresting choral introduction that is reminiscent of "Our Prayer," off Smile, the Boys vocalizing to a melody with a minor key, ending with a solitary piano. It's an invitation to reflection on the meaning of 50 years of being The Beach Boys. It's also the lead in to the title cut, Wilson giving credit to God for the gift of music in every generation: "That's why God made the radio. . ./ He waved his hand/ Gave us rock and roll. . ./ It's paradise when I/ Lift up my antennae/ Receiving your signal like a prayer/ Like a prayer.
And then, a trio of songs that wrap up the album hearken back to the slightly melancholy note of the introductory prelude. In "From There to Back Again" Wilson asks "why don't we feel the way we used to anymore" and reflects on how he's been "thinking 'bout when life was still in front of you" and wonders "if we can get from there to back again." From there the record goes to a short but moving song, "Pacific Coast Highway," which is simply, well, sad. Listen: "Sometimes I realize/My days are getting on/ Sometimes I realize/ It's time to move along/ And I wanna go home. . . Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, the setting sun/ Goodbye." Ouch.
And finally, the trio ends with "Summer's Gone," a beautiful if yet additional farewell, Wilson lamenting a summer gone, old friends gone, nights that grow cold,concluding that "we laugh, we cry/we live, then die." Yet the beauty in the delivery of the music keeps it buoyant, keeps me from sinking to where the lyric might take me.
In between these bookends of reality are some other fine songs, but these are the ones I'll remember. Three tunes find Wilson wondering at the strangeness of life. "The Private Life of Bill and Sue" is a jab at reality TV, Wilson concluding that "sometimes life can be so strange." In "Strange World" you sense his alienation from a world that has changed drastically in 50 years, Wilson watching the "uninvited who've lost their way," gathering on Santa Monica Pier, concluding that "it's a strange world after all." Its a perspective that rings true, one appropriate to his age. He can write about the beaches and places of Southern California --- this man who seems to embody the ethos of that culture --- and yet one senses he feels like (to appropriate a biblical phrase) an "alien and stranger" in his own hometown.
I recently saw Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys on their 50th Anniversary Tour. Most of the time he sat behind a grand piano that he did not play. When he stood at the show closer and had a bass guitar strapped on to him (his instrument back in the day), I noticed his frailty, how he shuffled across the stage, that lost look in his eyes that I have seen before. I thought to myself: "This is it. This is the last. This is his goodbye. He may not even make it through the night, much less a grueling tour." And yet he keeps on.
This could have been a nostalgia record, an aging band reworking their old hits, a caricature of themselves. They could could have played to sentimentality. That this album doesn't do any of that is due to Wilson, songwriting partners (like Joe Thomas), and a working band of younger musicians (Jeffrey Foskett, The Wondermints, et al.) who support him and keep him honest. He's still doing something new. He's still making good if maybe not great music.
I think that's why God made Brian Wilson.