“I wanna take you there,” sings Brian Wilson on “Isn’t It Time” from That’s Why God Made the Radio, the Beach Boys’ first studio album in 29 years. “Do you wanna turn back the pages?” It’s a valid question, because the new album, out tomorrow (June 5), does exactly that.
But make no mistake; Radio is not the nostalgia trip one would expect from a band celebrating its 50th anniversary. Instead, it’s a contemporary update of the group, featuring an able assemblage of backing musicians including longtime Wilson band member Jeff Foskett and his golden falsetto (hear “Shelter”). Sometimes aided and sometimes hindered by modern technology, the album is rife with everything that loyal fans have come to expect from the band – the beach, the sun, and those modern harmonies that Beach Boy Bruce Johnston calls “awesome.” Radio is the Beach Boys that you’ve missed.
Bookended by two haunting, somber ballads, the meat of the album is grade A, no filler. The melodious “Think About the Days,” sounding a bit like the grandson of SMiLE treasure “Our Prayer,” smacks the listener in the face with a reminder that these are the Beach Boys, damn it, and qualifies everything that follows as stone legitimate. The title track and ubiquitous first single sits pretty in second position, but it’s “Isn’t It Time” that starts the party, inviting the listener to “dance the night away.” Even the overtly obvious “Beaches in Mind” and “Spring Vacation” don’t cheapen the effort – the latter is so catchy that the hokey laundry list of past hits in the lyrics is an afterthought.
Though it’s a tamer, easier sound than those revving engines from long ago, Radio represents the band today, and contains enough earworms to keep the listener singing all summer long. “When I hear it, I feel like I’m driving down the coast in a convertible,” says guitarist David Marks. “It’s that happy Beach Boys sound.”
Brian Wilson has a massive thumbprint on the album. Besides producing, he’s listed as co-writer on 11 of the dozen tracks, and handles lead vocals on many. “Strange World” is an aptly-titled peek into the mind of the master (“Strange world/I’m getting’ through it”), while Wilson ponders the voyeurism of reality television in vibes-infused toe-tapper “The Private Life of Bill and Sue.” But it’s the lyrically-brief, heart-wrenching “Pacific Coast Highway” that moves the album to deeper waters as Wilson sings, “Sometimes I realize/My days are getting on/Sometimes I realize/It’s time to move along/And I wanna go home.”
“Brian’s come up with a lot of great songs,” said Mike Love amidst recording in March, “and then we come in and add our voices to it or maybe we’ll have a part, an idea, a lyric to add to it. It’s a collaboration and a group effort and it sounds like the Beach Boys, believe it or not. Each guy has their range and their strengths and all together with Brian’s arrangements, it really sounds cool.”
Besides the omnipresent, magical backups, the other members trade vocal duties throughout. Al Jardine’s youthful lead on “From There to Back Again” serves as a prime example, while Mike Love’s “Daybreak Over the Ocean,” originally intended for Love’s never-released 1978 solo album, is a mellow, romantic serenade with shades of the doo-wop sound that Love is fond of.
“The vocal integrity is pretty strong,” says Jardine. “I think you really get to appreciate the hard work we put into this. People will appreciate this a lot. We’ve been able to repair a lot of the stuff that needed to be repaired.”
Closer “Summer’s Gone” deviates most from the overarching themes of togetherness, camaraderie and reconciliation, and instead of gently easing the listener back into the real world, it’s more like a shove out of a moving car. Once the crashing waves and tinkling wind chimes fade, and the album ends to pregnant silence, all that’s left is an unsettling, unfillable void—that is, until you play the album again. Which you will.
– Allison Johnelle Boron
For more on the Beach Boys’ 50th anniversary, reunion tour, and new album, look for our July/August cover story, featuring exclusive interviews with each band member, on sale later this month!