The idea of The Beach Boys releasing a new album, produced by and largely starring Brian Wilson, would have seemed like an impossible fantasy not so very long ago. But That’s Why God Made The Radio, released to celebrate their 50th anniversary, is more than just a cash-in reunion disc. In Wilson’s hands (and mind), it’s a bittersweet melancholy farewell to old friends, happy memories and the lapping of those waves on the shoreline.
Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, David Marks and Bruce Johnston announced their reunion with snippets of a new recording of Do It Again, that first burst of nostalgia, originally released back in 1968. Ever since then, they’ve been frequently harking back to the good old days, to the point of ridicule at times. So it’s no surprise that this first new album of original material since 1992 is full of talk of ‘getting back together’ and beaches and good times. What is more surprising is how much Wilson’s personality seems to have overridden that of his cousin Love.
I’m not going to go into their relationship, it’s been done plenty of times and they seem able to put it behind them, but there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that Mike is the more upbeat of the two and the more commercially-minded. If he could have done, he’d have made sure the Beach Boys released surf ‘n’ car songs forever. Lord knows he tried. That’s simplifying it, of course, but one listen to Beaches In Mind and you can hear what this album would have sounded like if he’d been in control as he was on the downright disastrous Summer In Paradise.
Instead, we kick things off with the gorgeous a capella Think About The Days, which has harmonies good enough to avoid the sense of potential cliche of another Our Prayer rip-off. It’s also quite sad, even though it doesn’t have any words, there’s a wistful feeling to it that seeps into the nostalgic title track and adds a real melancholic edge to what was already a very nice first taster of what the Beach Boys would sound like in 2012. Bruce Johnston had promised that this album would be a bit like Sunflower and Pet Sounds, which was always going to be unlikely given the time that has passed and everything the band has been through, but he wasn’t too far wrong.
Of course, the loss of Carl and Dennis Wilson is keenly felt, particularly as this is the first Beach Boys album since Carl’s death. But it’s a stronger collection of songs than we could have possibly hoped for. I’ve already mentioned Beaches In Mind, which comes in a halfway-point coupling of Love-fronted songs, with the other being Daybreak Over The Ocean, a song that dates back to one of his unreleased solo albums. I’ve heard the original and I can definitely say that it’s much better than that, and Wilson’s production makes both of them sound pretty good, even if Beaches In Mind irritates with its faux-surfing lyrics from a man who didn’t even surf in the 60s and is now in his 70s.
But we can forgive him these moments because Love seems to have made the sensible decision to let Brian run wild with his own imagination for the first time on a Beach Boys album since Love You, not that there’s much in common between the two albums. Tracks like Isn’t It Time, Spring Vacation and The Private Life Of Bill And Sue bear the hallmarks of the very MOR Joe Thomas, whose co-writing credits across the album had concerned fans who blame him for the syrupy production of Wilson’s Imagination album, but are all pretty good songs, with Spring Vacation overcoming some clunky lyrics and Bill And Sue’s harmonies saving it from sounding a bit cornball at first.
Where the album comes into it own is the final four songs, which come after Love’s couplet. With Wilson firmly back in control, the Spector-ish Strange World finds him in typically uncomfortable mood, while Al Jardine possibly delivers his best-ever vocal performance on the wonderful and wistful From There To Back Again. But the last two songs are heartbreakingly beautiful. Pacific Coast Highway lasts less than two minutes but finds Brian driving on his own again along the coastline (his version of a car song) and leads into Summer’s Gone, a song he claims was written to be the final song on the final Beach Boys album and is exactly what you’d hope for from a song with that description, right down to the waves lapping on the shore at the end.
All of which suggests that this really is the last new album from them, one final hurrah for their anniversary before they go their separate ways again. It’s hardly a surprise, but it is surprising that Wilson has been allowed to be so frank about it in the lyrics of those final two songs, which effectively represent his farewell to the Beach Boys. It’s that which makes That’s Why God Made The Radio more than just a reunion cash-in album, it’s the chance for the 20th Century’s greatest pop composer to put all of the pain and conflict behind him and deliver one last Beach Boys album, to finally go out on a high after all that’s happened. That’s exactly what this album does, it brings the turbulent career of America’s Band to a much more satisfactory conclusion than either Summer In Paradise or Stars & Stripes ever did. That’s why God made Brian Wilson.