The Beach Boys: That’s Why God Made the Radio
In 2012, it’s almost impossible to talk about the Beach Boys in the present tense. A testament to just how prolific the band’s career was and just how long ago that career was at its height, the Beach Boys are a musical relic of a time bygone. It is undeniably an important musical event when the Beach Boys make new music. They are too influential ‒ too talented ‒ to label as washed-up or accuse of cash grabbing (even if this might be). While it is exciting to see the Beach Boys making new music again, it’s also a bit sad. They recently released the music video for the title track, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” and I could not help but come away from it depressed. It is a video full of lush beaches and young people in vaguely retro sunglasses riding in vaguely retro cars. The actual band is only featured briefly and is inevitably playing the role of the sweet old men watching the young’uns having fun. These aren’t the same aw-shucks young men who stood alongside Dick Clark fifty years ago. No matter how good the music is on this record, the specter of age and time is hard to shake off. The problem this presents is only compounded by the band’s album-long inability to embrace or even accept this reality.
If you aren’t listening closely to the lyrics, it’s hard to pick up on any defining features that tell you this is a new Beach Boys record. This is a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that the music sounds beautiful for the most part. Sure, it isn’t Pet Sounds, but the classic harmonizing and lyrics that are both care-free but subtly dark are all here. It’s actually quite impressive how well they still sing together, given all the time that has gone by. At the same time, shouldn’t this sound like a new Beach Boys record? By making an album in 2012, they’re armed with a completely new perspective and are recording in a time that offers new stylistic choices and directions that are begging to be explored. But it really ends up feeling like Pet Sounds Lite. Pet Sounds minus the passion, minus the audacity, minus the once-in-a-generation spirit. Much of this record sounds self-conscious, as if they set out to please the old fans who want more songs about young love and heartbreak. So much of this has a classic Beach Boys vibe to it, which is certainly enjoyable to listen to. It just doesn’t work as well in the present. Part of the reason listening to Pet Sounds now is such an incredible experience is that it has a sense of history to it. It’s also what made last year’s The Smile Sessions so mind-numbingly brilliant. You were listening to these young men make stellar pop music, and you really felt that they believed in the music they were making. Listening to similar songs that were made today feels a bit hollow in comparison.
“Shelter” is a perfect example of a song that is finely executed but lacks that verve and excitement today. It’s something they likely would have made with much more passion forty-five years ago. On “Beaches in Mind” they again take a the safe route, only rarely dipping their toes in the water of sonic experimentation. “Strange World” has some inspired moments, but it doesn’t have half of the audacity or excitement that songs like “Heroes and Villains” or “Good Vibrations” once had. Listen to a song off of this record and then a song like 1967’s “Heroes and Villains” and the difference is palpable; the depth is so much more apparent on the older records.
Bobby Womack very recently released his first new studio album in over a decade. It’s fairly stunning work from the 68-year old R&B legend. Throughout you cannot help but notice that this is an artist who still has a clear excitement for musical experimentation. The music has an immediacy to it, a willingness to explore that That’s Why God Made the Radio so dearly lacks. Womack recognizes that, yeah, he’s old now, but this doesn’t hold him back and it may actually liberate him. “As a singer grows older, his conception grows a little deeper, because he lives life and understands what he’s trying to say a little more,” is an apt recording of Sam Cooke dialog that plays over a track on the album. It’s a track that just so happens to feature Lana Del Rey. Womack takes that inescapable phantom of age and defies it. I’m not asking Brian Wilson to call up Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg for a “California Girls” mash-up (in fact, that thought just sent a nervous chill down my spine). The Beach Boys are under no obligation to attune their music to the 21st century. I just think it’s a missed opportunity. Instead of taking chances, there’s a great deal of self-pity on this record. The closing lyrics of this album, “We laugh, we cry, we live then die, And dream about our yesterday,” aren’t just a reminder that the Beach Boys are old men now, but also a reminder that they’re having great difficulty moving beyond the glory days. I guess it’s hard to blame them.
MP3: The Beach Boys “That’s Why God Made the Radio”
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The Beach Boys: That’s Why God Made the Radio