Album Review: The Beach Boys – Surf’s Up (1971)

“So hard to laugh a child-like giggle when the tears start to torture my mind”

Surf's Up

Rating : 9/10

If you ever wondered what would make the most misguiding album title ever, you’ve found your answer here. It’s ‘Surf’s Up’. No, not because all of The Beach Boys except one weren’t actual surfers, but because it has absolutely nothing to do with surf music, a genre that they abandoned about 8 years before. In many ways, this album is a complete opposite of what a wave-lover would hope to find: no sun, no fun, no carefree and leave-all-your-problems-behind attitude, but a rather dark, pessimistic, claustrophobic-with-very-few-bright-moments atmosphere.

And ‘Til I Die’, often cited as Brian’s most personal song ever, fits the description perfectly. The lyrics are simple and they get straight to the point, far removed from SMiLE’s drugs-fueled absurd poetry. The beauty of the instrumentation is far more evident on the extended mix that can be found on the Endless Harmony compilation and which sounds more like the vision Brian wanted for this song: a steady, dreary bass and a melancholic wave-imitating organ push forward a sad, desperate, cloudy atmosphere that seems to perfectly resemble Wilson’s feelings at the time. And if you have any doubts about that, go ahead and listen to ‘A Day In The Life of a Tree’, a much less direct song (it’s actually sung from a tree’s perspective) but an equally emotional and heartbreaking one. The fact that the obviously less-talented in the vocal department (this is still The Beach Boys, after all) manager Jack Rieley is given the singing job may seem like a terrible decision on paper, but he actually does a pretty job in resembling….uhm, a dying tree, I guess. I particularly enjoy his hopeless, forced falsetto (“There’s nothing left for me…”), followed by Van Dyke Parks’ cynical self-reconciliation (“Trees like me weren’t meant to live…”) and then finally, Al Jardine’s lost, far-away cries (“Oh Lord I lay me down…”).

Having just mentioned Jack Rieley, he actually brought more to this album than just a lead vocal. After either of the lo-fi psychedelia of ‘Smiley Smile’, the soulful passion of ‘Wild Honey’, the peaceful smoothness of ‘Friends’, the diversity of ’20/20′ and finally the pop perfectionism of ‘Sunflower’ failed to impress the audience at the time of their release, The Beach Boys hardly had any idea what direction to take. That’s when Jack came into the picture and suggested them to add a bit of social-awareness to their lyrics. This gave birth to ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’ and ‘Student Demonstration Time’ both laughable and dated from a lyrical point of view, but the former is at least being saved by a rather nice arrangement, with a bubbly synth and a heavenly-trippy coda. ‘Take A Load Off Your Feet’, a Jardine/Brian Wilson-penned goofball, could be taken as some sort of a parody on that whole socially-aware attitude (except for the fact that it was written a year before) and its silly sound effects that complement the absolutely hilarious subject matter definitely do it for me: I can’t listen to it without chuckling.

Carl’s two compositions on the other hand, hardly show any trace of humour – but why would they? Both ‘Feel Flows’ and ‘Long Promised Road’ mark the youngest Wilson’s born as a songwriter. And I can only assume he means serious business, since both are very powerful and fulfilled – the former with a fantastic prog rock-influenced guitar-flute solo and the latter with its very expressive struggle-themed lyrics and delivery (it makes even more sense when realizing that Carl was, step by step, beginning to become the band’s true leader). It’s a shame that he never actually quite rose again to this level of brilliancy and ambition.

And just for good measure, let’s also give him his due for “resurrecting” the title track, from the abandoned Smile jewelry-trash can, a masterpiece that no words will do justice to. In many ways, this actually sums up everything that I love about music: ambitious and adventurous arrangement (love the “jewelry” effect); heavenly vocal delivery (from both Brian and Carl); surreal, poetical lyrics filled with beautiful visual images that give you space to make up your own interpretation (click here to check out Brian Wilson talking about the song’s lyrics) and a magical, hallucinating atmosphere culminating with the emotional “father of the man” coda sung by Al Jardine. Many, many need to be said about this timeless masterpiece, but here is not the right place to (maybe I’ll dedicate a whole essay to the song one day). I’ll just say this: if my review doesn’t convince you to buy the album, at least listen to this song (especially Brian’s piano demo filmed by ok, I’ll stop now).

Yes, the remaining tracks kind of pale a little in comparison (both the schmaltzy, nostalgic ‘Disney Girls’ and ‘Lookin’ At Tomorrow’ – a folk song with a haunting touch of psychedelia added – are good, but nothing more). Yes, it hurts not to see any Dennis Wilson songs here (both the majestic ‘4th of July’ and the yet-still unreleased ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice (To Live Again)’ were pulled back by him after an argument with Carl) and to realize how minimal Brian’s involvement actually is (has he ever contributed with such few compositions on any other album by that point?). Yes, the album as a whole may be a bit disjointed and there is quite a lot of room for improvement. But at the same time, this here band seems focused, feeling the need to improve and to experiment at every step. And most of the songs are just fine. Can’t do anything but give the album the second best mark and pronounce it to be on the band’s greatest.

P.S. I believe ‘Surf’s Up’ to be a better song, but ‘Long Promised Road’ sums up more of what the album is about.

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1 reply

  1. Enjoyed the review. You’ve made me want to hear this album again.

    Liked by 1 person

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