It’s fair to say that The Beach Boys are one of those few artists that could be described as having defined an era. Their prolific output in the 1960s, giddy with the delights of youth, came to define America’s confident, consumerist rebirth following the Second World War. Little Deuce Coupe’s dissection of the prevalent car culture popular amongst America’s youth at the time did the unthinkable and made the intricacies of car mechanics sound interesting and exciting. Elsewhere, their early output managed to romanticise the sport of surfing, which seems to entail falling in the water a lot and generally embarrassing yourself.
The question remains that, at this stage of both their lives and their careers, can they recapture the sense of Technicolor vibrancy that made their early records such wonderfully arresting listens? Beautiful opening track Think About The Days, with its wordless vocal harmonies layered on top of a plaintive piano line, demonstrates that their way with a harmony remains undimmed. It gives a sense of hope for the rest of the album. It’s a pity, therefore, that it tails off dramatically to the point of the cringeworthy commentary – parping brass and all – on reality television in the form of the Lives Of Bill And Sue.
With the first two-thirds of the album passing by without anything to grab the attention musically, thoughts instead turn to the production. While The Beach Boys are always famed for their vocal harmonies, cue up their late ’60s album of instrumentals of all of their hits, Stack-O-Tracks, and you realise just how adept they (and particularly Brian Wilson) were at arrangements. Not so on the new record. The title track (and lead single), along with the likes of Spring Vacation and the verging-on-self-parody of Beaches In Mind, just feel flat – clumsy, even. The early running simply doesn’t feel like something befitting of a Beach Boys moniker.
Then, out of nowhere, they pull it off. Beginning with the rousing Strange World, the quality of the record improves markedly. There’s a near-tangible difference in quality between the first eight tracks and the last four. The wonderful From There To Back Again could easily sit on any of their acclaimed early recordings, and it continues with the heartbreaking Pacific Coast Highway and languid-yet-affecting Summer’s Gone carrying the record to its conclusion. The transformation is as baffling and bewildering as it is unequivocally welcome.
Even if you weren’t expecting much from everyone’s favourite four part harmony-peddling pension queue, this record would be something of a mixed bag. The early running lurches from the beatific via the ineffectual to the downright embarrassing, but yet, as you’re on the cusp of giving up on it entirely, it knocks you for six. By the record’s end you can’t help but feel a little frustrated at what could have been, knowing that the songwriting stream clearly wasn’t totally dry. Yet as mixed a bag as their latest offering is, you can’t help but feel that, like Calippos, The Beach Boys will forever be an intrinsic part of summer.